The Bird and the Bystanders

A crowd had gathered around a washed up Guillemot on Brighton beach. Frequent storms this winter have weakened many sea birds, causing them to get stranded on beaches around the English coast. Many casualties were covered in oil. Rather than use their initiative and find a solution, the bystanders faffed about. Some filmed the bird on their smart phones; others talked at length about doing something, but then failed to act. Humans may think they have freewill, but it is well established that they behave in highly predictable ways, especially when in groups. A phenomenon called the diffusion of responsibility causes individuals in a large group to refrain from helping a stricken person, bird or animal. This is regardless of personality, culture or socio-economic status. We are all capable of walking past someone who has collapsed in the street.

I decided to phone the RSPCA. It's fairly straightforward: one has to look them up on Google, tap the Call icon and navigate through a menu of options, before speaking to an advisor. In the meantime, a man stood by, allowing his son to threaten and throw stones at the stricken bird. I stepped in and shouted at them, but it was too late. The bird used its flagging energy to swim off into the sea. Seagulls hovered over the Guillemot, sizing up their potential meal. Nothing goes to waste in nature. That's just the way it is. The advisor informed me, if the bird had gone into the sea, there was nothing the RSPCA could do. I had to say something to the man, so I approached him for a word. For a moment, I wished a one-way plane ticket to North Korea on him. I explained that the bird now faced certain death. It wasn't his son's fault; he's only three, the man said. "But you're the adult, you should have stopped him", I replied.


I had planned on photographing the starling murmurations, but the incident had upset me. After giving up on the starlings prematurely, I packed my camera away and nearly left, but for a last minute decision to walk along the beach on the off-chance that the waves had washed the Guillemot up again. Eureka! There he was, on the pebbles, trying to remove the oil from his feathers. With the first nice day in weeks, I knew I was in for a very long wait. It was a cold Saturday evening. Animal lovers had been out and spotted lots of creatures in distress. The RSPCA was experiencing heavy demand on their services. At 6.30pm, RSPCA Inspector Tony Pritchard called me to say he was 35 miles away in Bognor Regis and would be with me in an hour. I stood guard, asking people if they would keep away from the bird. I once stood for 90 minutes at the Chattri in temperatures of -13°C, so two hours on Brighton beach in February was easy. With me standing by holding a torch, Tony captured the Guillemot in seconds using a net on a pole and placed him inside a box. The bird put up a struggle, which according to Tony, was encouraging. Of course, I will never find out if the bird survived. All I can do now, apart from drink the beer in my fridge, is donate some money and hope all goes well.


Martin Lower said…
I'm sorry to hear you had to give up on the murmurations, but at least you have this picture as a consolation! And, of course, the beer in your fridge!

Maybe the idiot will learn the hard way to respect nature. Someday, something bigger and nastier than a guillemot may extract revenge. We can but hope...
Alan MacKenzie said…
Thank you, Martin. The father did actually apologise and acknowledge the error of his ways. Like everybody else in the crowd, he was conflicted between the group rules, which was to do nothing and the rules of the individual, which was to intervene. Ironically, had the man and his son been alone, he probably would have stopped his son from throwing the stones. We've all been in situations like this, but my point was to show that we can override the primitive forces directing our behaviour and do the right thing.

I was involved in a similar type of incident today on the bus. A young man with obvious mental health problems sat engaging in self-injurious behaviour. He was talking to voices and punching himself in the face. People were aware of him and made remarks about him being locked up and not allowed out. I felt myself succumbing to the Bystander Effect, as I am only human. But when I sat next to him and asked if everything was all right, the man calmed down and thanked me. When the man got off the bus, people changed and started thanking me. It shows that group rules prevent us from doing the right thing, even if people know they ought to intervene. When someone does intervene, people start following different rules. We are all capable of behaving this way. I just hope, that if I ever have a heart attack, it happens when I'm with just one other person and not in a large crowd!
Unknown said…
Bravo! The ignorance of some people is astounding.
Alan MacKenzie said…
It's a combination of ignorance and human nature. There's nothing wrong with being ignorant, provided one takes steps to address it.
vanillablush said…
Only 3 yrs old....utterly pathetic excuse...may as well have been the adult chucking stones if that was the best he could come up with!!! I am pleased to say I acted a couple of weeks ago...on an Eastbourne beach I saw a little bird on the beach struggling. I had my (unbird friendly English Springer Spaniel with me) so put him on a lead and climbed down over a breakwater onto the adjoining beach...the steps to the beach had been closed as some of the steps had been broken in the storms). I walked carefully and approached the little appeared unhurt but oily and unable to fly. I tied up the dog and used my large woolly hate to gently place around the bird and tucked it under my arm. It was on the shoreline and struggling to keep out of the water and the tide was coming in and it was rough. I knew it would not survive. Rather than leave it I chose to move it up the beach to hopefully buy it some time until the rescue arrived! I kind of his it under the steps tucked in the groynes and climbed back up the breakwater (very gingerly), lifted up the dog and went and called Trevor Weekes wild animal rescue, a local rescue charity. They said they'd be there in about 15 mins! I gave them an exact location and hung around as long as I could. I couldn't stay with my dog as I didn't want to upset the bird. It was a juvenile guillemot. I understand they did find it and take it away...I hope it survived. It had pecked feistily at my cost when I had carried it! Kate
Alan MacKenzie said…
Hello, Kate. The father did try some emotional blackmail about me upsetting his son. I wasn't fooled. Well done for rescuing the juvenile Guillemot. It's a good idea to keep some gloves with you, in case one needs to handle a stricken animal to get it away from danger, before expert rescuers arrive.
stevolution said…
Well done mate. I had to ask a guy to stop throwing stones at the seagulls the other day. At least the third time I've had to do that.

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