Mission of Mercy
A routine jog leads to a chance encounter with an injured northern gannet—and a determined effort to set things right.
O happy living things! no tongue / Their beauty might declare: / A spring of love gushed from my heart, / And I blessed them unaware.—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
“Wow! A gannet on the causeway? That’s a great bird!” The comment was from one who leads birding expeditions the world over. I had just recounted my tale at a cocktail party, and now I basked in his enthusiasm.
Gannets are not a rarity in Maine. You can see them from the rocks of Two Lights State Park at the entrance to Casco Bay, generally something big and very white against the horizon over the Gulf of Maine. Or at sea in a fog, the black wingtips appearing disembodied before their owner emerges, a whiter shade of pale.
What had made my gannet “a great bird” was that I had seen it not in the open sea but so close to shore. To be precise, it was sitting on the side of the road that runs from suburban Falmouth a short distance out to a circle of mixed woods surrounded, when the tide is out, by mudflats.
I was jogging back after my morning turn around the island when I spotted it. Not white and splendid at all but forlorn and browny-gray: a juvenile, crouched under the guardrail, awkward and incongruous. With a middling tide, 10-plus feet of steep riprap separated the bird from the water, and it was a mystery how it had waddled up such a gradient.
The gannet hunkered down at my approach, waving a beak like a dagger, prepared to defend itself to the last. Although the bird was exhausted, I was not about to tangle with so formidable a weapon. Besides, with only my running togs, I was hardly equipped to apprehend a bird with a nearly six-foot wingspan. But that gray-blue stare: its command was the equal of the Ancient Mariner’s, whose “glittering eye” famously held the Wedding-Guest in thrall. As soon as I had showered, I returned in the car, armed with a towel and a cardboard box.
This time I saw the length of monofilament line emerging from the neck feathers, and when it opened its beak again the line twined around and around the lower mandible. Gently putting the towel over those considerable wings and wrapping them like a straitjacket, I installed the gannet in the box.
But not before I had squatted down beside it just to wonder at the potential for magnificence in that still-speckled head. It returned my gaze with baleful resignation. Whatever it was making of me, I could scarcely believe my luck in this unexpected chance to be so intimate with a bird I had seen only in the air, and generally from afar. Since I have yet to visit those watery worlds where the albatross is at home, a gannet is the closest I have come to the great ocean wanderer. For me this one had all the archetypal mystery of Coleridge’s “pious bird of good omen.”
In our Cartesian world, natural history of all the sciences is the most tolerant of metaphysics. And because its nature is to encourage unsought encounters, natural history most readily opens the door to that innate love of wild things that E.O. Wilson calls biophilia. It gracefully admits the poetic and the fellow feeling we find returned in the eyes of the species with which we share the land and air and water that surround us.
At least that is my excuse for tempering objective interest—the elegant niche in the food chain that gannets occupy, for instance—with a need to see in the bird and the whole happenstance of our meeting something personal. It’s the least I can do by way of appreciation when the unusual falls in my lap. And the unusual—which rewards openness to surprise above dogged pursuit—seems to return my appreciation with serendipity galore, until the really unusual day is the one that can be said to be routine.
When I got back to the house, the bird had keeled over. For a moment I thought it had expired, but it took another feeble swipe at me as I freed it from the towel and set it on its feet. Before embarking on my mission of mercy, I had called a local wildlife rehabilitator, but without success. Now I tried again, and a man’s voice answered.
“You want Dave Sparks.” I knew him. He had on more than one occasion helped me with wildlife problems about the house, but these had been exclusively mammalian. Thinking of him in connection with a gannet took some adjusting.
“Dave’ll take anything,” said the man.
Sure enough, when I called David, he said to come right on over. Back in the car, the radio had just begun Brahms’ Ssymphony No. 4 in E minor. Two giants beating each other was what one music critic heard when the composer played it for him on the piano. A century-plus later the tectonic flexing into which the full score plunges suggested a nobler struggle. Under the present circumstances, I was quite happy to equate it with the urge to live.
The symphony had got as far as the beginning of the scherzo when I turned onto a small road that wandered past several ranch houses before entering a wood. Up a small hill, around a bend, and down in a little dell lay a profusion of flowers and shrubs and trees, a perfect paradise of an English cottage garden. The ark-shaped mailbox read: Sparks Ark.
By the time I had taken the cardboard box and its precious contents (I was already dangerously possessive about “my” gannet) out of the car, David had joined me. He took one glance and went into the shed for some clippers. A rugged man of few words, he looks like an ex-cop and was, in fact, the town’s former animal control officer in between stints as a full-time a wildlife rehabilitator. An assortment of animals—wild deer, domestic chickens, and turkeys of uncertain provenance—appeared to be thriving in various pens that ascended the woody hillside.