It was one of those precious sunny days in the midst of Seattle downpours. A Flickr friend of mine told me about a tugboat race on Elliott Bay, so I thought I’d walk the Terminal 91 bike path to the water. The “path” is an industrial slog — a cement slough leading to Puget Sound, and a courtesy cut-through from the Port of Seattle — dividing sections of private Port land and railroad assets. Burlington Northern engines crawl alongside the path through Balmer Yard on the east, and bad-assed cyclists force pedestrians and photographers into the chain link on narrow passages. It’s precarious to turn your gaze anywhere but behind when you know buzz-bomb bikers are bearing down. But I did. I looked up at the gulls dozing on a warehouse rooftop, probably enjoying the jolts of Vitamin D as much as I was. And I snapped a few shots against mottled blue sky.
It was in scanning the rooftop for birds that I came upon some odd movement in my lens. My eye is trained for that. It’s how I spot some of my photographic subjects, but it’s also how I seem to find injured animals so easily. It’s a nonverbal call of sorts . . . an involuntary peripheral acknowledgement.
I saw a gull in what looked to be a distress position. A closer look through the telephoto showed that her wing was caught in a barrier wire on top of the building. The poor bird was hanging and thrashing on the wire — her wing feathers entwined in this invisible hazard.
I looked around to see if anyone could help me verify the status of the gull — is she alive? Cyclists were in too much of a mad run to even notice. The few pedestrians who walked by showed no interest. So I stayed by myself, trying to ascertain whether or not the gull was living and then, of course, wondering how on earth I would breach the serious no-trespassing signs to find someone who could help me, help the gull.
When I zoomed in on my LCD, the glare was just too strong for me to make a judgment call. I kept taking shots, hoping one angle would speak the truth of the situation. Finally, one angle did. It was only after looking at several frames in the shade of a maple tree, that I confirmed the gull was, in fact, dead. The frenzied movement I saw was simply her tangled body being whipped by the wind.
One photo of the unfortunate gull follows. The photo is not bloody. The gull was long dead by the time I took the picture. It’s just that the photo evokes the tragic reality of the gull’s last hours.
As you can see in the photo, another gull sat nearby. A second gull landed on the perch and examined the carcass for a long time before flying off. I’m not sure what their experience is of another gull’s death. It’s certainly a reality in a bird’s life, to deal with ever-present death and injury. On this same walk, in fact, I captured an image of a Bald Eagle. When I off-loaded pics, that photo showed a dead gull in the eagle’s talons, with the eagle tailed and harassed by angry gulls and crows. It’s a bitch to be predator or prey in this world. What haunts me about this incident, though, is, 1) the uselessness of this gull’s death . . . and my horror that not one person noticed what was probably a days-long struggle, and 2) wondering if I had, indeed, heard the distress calls of these gulls, while the injured gull was still alive — not recognizing them for what they were.
This was less than a mile from where I now live, in our new Seattle apartment. I’ve lost sleep contemplating the ifs . . . if I’d just walked a half mile in the right direction, in daylight . . . if I’d then looked up at the overhead wires, the rooftops, the perching posts as I always do, scanning the scene for birds to photograph . . . if I’d done those things, I might have been able to help. I can’t help but think that someone should have, could have seen this bird in trouble. And I wish it had been me. I suppose it’s the curse of human hindsight that I delude myself into thinking I could have been omniscient here.
As night rolls around, I remember our first evenings in this tiny aerie of an apartment — a place from which we watched gulls and eagles and osprey ride the thermals over the valley of a train yard below. We could hear the raspy vocals of Caspian Terns swooping over the gully in the afternoon. Departure signals from docking cruise ships punctuate the evenings (four blasts of the horn) — and there’s the engine idling, the whistles and switching noises of the night trains. Those first nights here, with the brand new sounds of our brand new existence, were also the nights when this gull was probably still alive, injured, without reprieve. It’s difficult not to second guess how this gull could have died in this torturous way — not far from a heavily populated path — above a parking lot that sees a lot of maintenance activity.
The Devil’s Rope & Other Hazards
I’ve written before on the wildlife hazards of barbed wire — the Devil’s Rope — which is a significant problem on western ranches where animals like antelope get caught and die in the maze of metal wire prongs. Any time we erect such a barrier, we put up a potential, lethal hazard for birds and wildlife. In my post on barbed wire, I mentioned a study in Colorado and Utah which found that one ungulate died for every 2.5 miles of fencing. Transparent barriers like windows kill 100 million to 1 billion birds a year, according to Audubon. I wrote about this after Hi, one of San Francisco’s fledgling Peregrines died tragically in a window collision, on one of his first, young flights.
At the hospital where I volunteered in the Bay Area, a Scrub Jay came in mangled from trying to free itself from the flimsy bird netting you can buy at any hardware store. Birds are euthanized sometimes because there is no way to properly free them from the rodent glue traps where they’ve accidentally flown. A bird came in last fall, stuck to the novelty spider webbing people put up in their gardens around Halloween. Raptors arrive from the Livermore area, where they’re consistently maimed or killed by windmills. Just last year, an Osprey was euthanized here in Seattle after it was found, wingtip caught in power lines.
I don’t mention these hazards in emotional resignation, but rather as a reminder to myself and to anyone else, to pay attention to the things we might not normally construe as dangerous — but which make life for our co-habitants on this planet a lot more difficult. A single wire on top of a building killed this gull in a most brutal way. I assume the death to be inadvertent and aberrant. But still, that wire was all it took to create a great amount of suffering in another being. Imagine the toll when we’re talking about clearly more lethal and widespread options.
Better Solutions for Species Co-Habitation
As a species, humans are accustomed to changing the environment as they see fit, even if those changes come at great cost to other living things who can’t properly adapt. I’m gratified to see increased concern and interest in how our actions affect wildlife — moving us toward a philosophy that embraces our connectivity with the nature and animals around us rather than simply running roughshod over them. For instance, there are now official white papers on building bird-safe structures. There are windmill manufacturers designing their products with birds in mind. There are new highways planned with built-in wildlife corridors.
Changes begin at the ground level, with our individual perceptions. It becomes a matter of seeing past the immediate, and then understanding the tradeoffs of our artificial environments and their refuse. It’s often easy to ignore the costs, because we’re not usually the ones paying the direct price of our choices. It’s easy to remember the costs, however, when you see a gull hopelessly entwined in a trap of human making. It pains me and sobers me fast, every time I witness something like this. And it changes the way I view each object I use, every piece of trash I toss, and every behavior in which I engage. It should do that. I’d be more worried if I were actually sleeping well tonight.
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