The Life and Death of Nigel, the World’s Loneliest Seabird
Posted February 4, 2018 7:38 p.m. EST
Updated February 4, 2018 7:42 p.m. EST
LONDON — The story of a lonely seabird named Nigel who tried to woo a mate that had a heart of stone and died on an uninhabited island off New Zealand has captivated many on social media.
Footage of the bird preening and cooing as he fruitlessly courted a decoy made of concrete has been watched obsessively online. Though his chosen partner kept a cold silence, Nigel, a gannet, won the affection of visitors and conservationists alike.
His solitary life shined a light on a yearslong effort by an army of conservationists, devoted volunteers and others to repopulate his species on the island.
News of the seabird’s death in late January hit the island’s caretakers and social media users hard.
“It seems like such a wrong ending for Nigel to die now,” said Chris Bell, 37, a ranger for the New Zealand Conservation Department, who found the seabird dead in his nest. “Just when it looked like it could get better for him.”
Nigel first landed on Mana Island a few years ago (conservationists differ on the year). Mana is about 16 miles (25.3 kilometers) northwest of Wellington, the capital. It is also the site of an ambitious effort to establish a flourishing colony of Australasian gannets, which can be found in social clusters off the coast of Australia and New Zealand. But types of gannets have settled all over the world, including in Scotland.
In the 1990s, conservationists set up concrete gannets on the western side of Mana to lure real birds. They painted the decoys’ beaks yellow, the wingtips black, the plumage white. They played seabird calls over solar-powered speakers.
On the very first day, two gannets swooped in, Bell said by phone early Saturday. Conservationists congratulated themselves on their instant success. But soon, the birds soon flew away, and the project stalled.
Then came Nigel.
He quickly took a liking to one of the concrete replicas, according to Bell, who says he’s the only full-time employee on the island. Month after month, the bird cozied up to his chosen mate, but she remained aloof.
“He nested alongside ‘her,'” said Linda Kerkmeester, vice president of the environmental conservation group Friends of Mana Island. “He was seen wooing her by preening her. Nigel was also seen trying to mate with her.”
A botanist doing a survey for Friends of Mana Island named the bird Nigel “no mates” because he had no friends.
“I think the saddest part of this story is what a frustrating existence to be courting this stone bird and getting nothing back,” Bell said. “Not getting rejected, not getting encouragement.”
Though Nigel lived a mostly solitary life on the island, he became the linchpin of the efforts to draw other gannets to Mana.
The colony was one of several seabird projects undertaken by a partnership that included a local tribe, Friends of Mana Island and the Conservation Department to drive gannets to spread out and inhabit other islands.
“New Zealand was an amazing place for seabirds before humans arrived,” Bell said. “Lots of seabirds nested on the land. Bringing seabirds back to the land is important.”
The seabirds are key to the project because they provide nutrients in the soil for insects and plants to thrive, according to Friends of Mana Island.
New Zealand, whose native species have been devastated by predators like rats that were introduced to the country, is aiming for an environmental moonshot. The nation is waging a battle to eradicate all invasive predators by 2050. Several islands have already been cleared.
Mana, which was farmed from the 1820s to the 1980s, is pest free. It has been restored with 500,000 native trees, and lizards, seabirds and other native birds have been translocated, according to Friends of Mana Island.
“Mana Island is a great scientific reserve because Mana never had rats,” Bell said. “So it’s a great place to reintroduce species.”
In December, after years of hoping the Mana seabird project would take off, conservationists redoubled efforts to build up the colony. They repositioned the decoys, and moved the speakers so that recorded bird sounds would be carried clear out to sea. The fake birds got fresh paint. And suddenly, Nigel had company.
“Within 10 days of that,” Bell said, “there were three more gannets” on the island.
The conservationists were elated but cautious, hoping they would stay. But Nigel? He avoided the birds, refusing to leave his concrete mate.
Then, one day, Bell found him dead. “Broke my heart,” one person wrote on the Friends of Mana Island’s Facebook page. “Teary-eyed,” said another.
“It’s really sad he died,” Bell said, “but it wasn’t for nothing.”
The bird left a legacy to the island, he said. For all anyone knew, Bell said, “other birds had came before, seen the concrete decoys and said, ‘Ugh, we’re not fooled by that.’ But Nigel was fooled.”
His presence most likely helped draw the three birds there and persuaded them to hang out. Now, the hope is that the new flock will stick around and breed.
“These birds interact with each other,” he said. “And if the birds are communicating with one another, there’s a chance.”