A flight of imagination on the back of a bird
We found it on Rona the very day we’d arrived, and, in
keeping it, maybe I imagined I could bring home something of
the sky and spaciousness of that island, at least for a while.
It wasn’t the dead bird we saw, lying on the turf, not at first, but
a tiny wink of metal. I said, “Look, what’s that?” and Stuart replied,
“Storm petrel. They breed here. But ringed— that’s a real find.”
So here it is on my desk, in a polyethylene sample bag. An ex–
storm petrel, just a clump of desiccated feather and bone, with
a tiny ring on its hooked-up leg. When you report a ringed bird
it’s called a “recovery,” but this one was beyond all hope of that.
My five-volume wartime Handbook of British Birds says that
storm petrels are “essentially pelagic,” they “never occur inland
except as storm-driven waifs.” That’s the kind of language they
inspire. There’s a lovely poem by Richard Murphy, called “Storm
Petrel,” that begins:
Gypsy of the sea,
in winter wambling over scurvy whaleroads
jooking in the wake of ships . . .
At only six inches long, dark brown with a white rump, somewhat like a house martin, you’d think them too small to jook
anywhere at all, never mind in storms, but they manage fine,
and come ashore only to breed, in crannies between stones, on
islands and cli=s at the ocean’s edge.
So the bird is small and the ring on its leg even smaller. Back
at the shelter we had to peer at it down the wrong end of binoculars to make out the number and that terse, famous address:
“British Museum London S7.”
the Rings on otheR biRds, bigger birds, gulls and suchlike, often have space for the word inform. “Inform British Museum,” they say, which makes it sound as though the bird in
question had transgressed somehow, had jumped parole. The
inform makes the bird-ringing project sound imperious and Edwardian, which it was— Edwardian, anyway, because bird ringing began in 1909. But the storm petrel’s leg is so twig thin,
there is no room for an inform.
A few days after we got home, I did contact the British Museum through its website. There is a form with boxes to fill in:
Ring number: 2333551
Type of bird (if known): Storm petrel.
Sex of bird (if known): Unknown.
Age of bird (if known): Unknown.
Was the bird dead or alive? Dead. Recently (one week)? Long
dead. Desiccated corpse.
What had happened to the bird (hit by a car, oiled, etc.)? Possibly