In memoriam, 4X2

When we give our usual spiel about gulls to visitors on Appledore Island, we usually tell them the conventional wisdom about survivorship: that mortality in the first couple years of life is high in gulls, but that birds who live to be adults generally live many years. Both the last two in memoriam birds defied that rule, living only a couple years beyond their adolescence. 4X2 is another such bird.

A Great Black-backed Gull hatched in 2012 near Kingsbury House, 4X2 was not seen again until 2015 when Dave Adrien spotted it at the wastewater treatment plant in Exeter, NH. Another long lapse in sightings followed, with the bird being seen once on Appledore near the High Tide Pier in 2016. It’s possible that it nested, though that location is heavily traversed by human observers, and generally, birds with nests there are seen many times over the course of a summer.

No one saw the bird at all in 2017, and then, this past summer, one of the Shoals Marine Lab staff members let me know he’d seen a dead, banded gull down on the rocks. “In good shape,” the staff member told me, since I am often hopeful I will find the birds fresh enough to dissect. I walked down to find it, and discovered 4X2, spread-winged above the high tide line. The body was not in good shape, as it turned out, with eyes sunken and the lightness of dessication. This is typical–from even a fairly close distance, bird bodies rarely look decomposed. The feathers remain in good trim even long after the intestinal bacteria have loosed their bounds and consumed the body from the inside.

As final resting places go, a body could do worse than the shores of Appledore.

I wanted to retrieve the bands in any case, so I went to get some garden loppers and sever the legs. As I went to cut I could see maggots writhing in the skin bags of the hock joints. Having removed and pocketed the bands, I carried the bird back to the rocks, and, standing on the little lip of dirt under an apple tree at the sea verge, I flung the carcass over to the general area where I’d found it. But something didn’t seem right about it. I looked at the bird, crumpled on the rocks, footless, but otherwise not very different from how I’d found it, and I couldn’t leave it. I scrambled down the rocks, retrieved the bird again, and set it, belly down, wings outstretched, on a stone under the tree. I ran my hand over its back and apologized for flinging it. I thanked it for bearing the bands for us the entire six years of its life, and then I left it there.

We know very little about 4X2’s life. Nothing about where it went off island, aside from that time at the wastewater plant, or about whether it had found a mate this year before it died, or even why it died, but it is a great privilege and responsibility of this work to know a bird like this–to have laid human hands on it once as a youngling, and once again at death.

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