After a tough patch, I perked up this week thanks to having something concrete to worry about. It’s satisfying to attach the diffuse fog of dread to a real, small, problem. Perhaps you, too, would like to worry about something quite trivial. If so, join me briefly: it concerns a seagull chick. Before ornithologists start vibrating with no-such-thing-as-a-seagull indignation, yes, OK, a juvenile herring gull. Let’s call it that: JHG.
On Thursday afternoon, an outbreak of more bloodcurdling than usual shrieks alerts me to a commotion in the crime syndicate on next door’s roof where I am watching two murdergulls (hush, ornithologists, that is the correct term) raise a chick. I was gull-obsessed even pre-corona: I love their anarchic spirit and the way their yellow eyes match their giant scything beaks. Every CCTV clip of a gull stealing Doritos from a Spar, and every councillor mugged for a cheese straw (true story
) delights me; it’s avian revenge for the worst excesses of the Anthropocene. I look up: JHG, a gawky teenager, has fallen off the nest and is stuck on the guttering, flapping half-heartedly.
I wake to a cacophony suggestive of a trawler landing 23,000 mackerel in our yard
I watch, obsessively. His parents shriek encouragement, he peeps plaintively, but he’s stuck. “Should we get a ladder?” I ask my husband, although I know the answer. Sleep is elusive, for both noise and anxiety reasons. Next morning, things get worse: I wake to a cacophony suggestive of a trawler landing 23,000 mackerel in our yard. I investigate, assailed by low parental swoops and warning screams, and discover something the size of a Yorkshire terrier standing, confused, in the alley: JHG.
Inexplicably, no one else is interested in the most exciting thing to happen for months. I tell my husband, but he is working, so the energy he usually expends in feigning interest in my bird-related observations is directed elsewhere. I WhatsApp my children (they are home, but in-person communication is viewed as aggression): no reaction. “Is it dead?” one replies, hours later. Thwarted, I message the neighbourhood WhatsApp, warning of seagull danger, to deafening silence.
Thankfully my best friend is currently obsessed with a cat that adopted her during lockdown, so we tacitly agree to talk at each other about our respective fixations. “Why does she keep staring at the chimney?” she muses. “I’ve brought him water, but I think he’s hungry,” I “reply”. “I want to let her out, but she won’t use the catflap,” she says. “I keep asking what seagulls eat,” I complain. “But everyone says ‘chips’”. This goes on for hours.
Online fledgling guidance can be broadly summarised as “Nature: shit happens.” Unless JHG is injured, I’m supposed to leave well alone. He seems fine, just confused – he drinks, walks around and rests behind the neighbour’s bike – but I fear this cannot end well.
The parents keep constant vigil on the roof, attempting a fly-by pecking if anyone gets too close, waiting for JHG to get his act together. Anthropomorphising wildly, I’m moved by gull parenting: such consistent tough love and well-enforced boundaries! “During this time, parents often withhold food in an attempt to encourage the gulls to fly,” I read, taking awed notes (I’m always buying treats for my giant sons: would withholding doughnuts help them spread their wings?)
By Sunday, my life is 90% gull. I watch JHG constantly, even though I should be working and despite my clearly expressed preference, my job is not “urban bird monitor”. I call encouragement as he tests its wings, cementing my reputation as what a friend calls “the kind of mad crone who ends up breastfeeding a raven”.
Then around midnight, a terrifying cacophony: panicked high-pitched shrieking, machine-gun caws and the ominous sound of a yowling cat. I look out, but can only see the parents wheeling, white sails against the dark sky, calling and calling.
My son emerges from his bedroom. “I think a cat got your baby,” he says. I take a torch and check the yard: JHG is gone. Up on the nest, both parents are perched on the chimney pot. But isn’t that a third beak, peeping out? Am I imagining it? “I think he might have flown back up!” I call to my son. “You’re going with the Disney version, cool,” he says and heads to bed.
The next morning, I fear he’s right: there’s no sign of my baby. It was probably just a kebab wrapper flapping in the wind. Of course: it’s 2020, everything is terrible. Nature might be healing, but it’s absolutely not here to make us feel better. I sulk all day.
In the evening as I’m gloomily contemplating the tuna stockpile I acquired for JHG, I hear my husband calling. Inexplicably, he’s in the yard with binoculars, staring at the roof. “It’s there,” he says, pointing. I snatch the binoculars: a grey shape is indeed bobbling unsteadily around the chimney pot. JHG lives! “Be careful you fool,” I shout, absurdly happy. Then I force myself to stop watching. My heart can’t take any more.
Follow Emma on Twitter @BelgianWaffling