The Bird and the Bystanders

A crowd had gathered around a washed up Guillemot on Brighton beach. Frequent storms during winter 2014 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 smartphones; 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. It is common for people in a group or a crowd to ignore a stricken person or animal and carry on regardless. This phenomenon is called the diffusion of responsibility. It happens 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. In the meantime, a man stood by, idly 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 that there was nothing the RSPCA could do, if the bird had gone into the sea. 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's  not his fault, he's only three", the man said. "But you're the adult, you should have stopped him", I replied.

I had intended to photograph the murmurations, but the incident had upset me. After giving up early, 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, as callouts increase when people venture outdoors. It was a cold Saturday evening. The RSPCA was experiencing heavy demand on their services. At 6.30pm, RSPCA Inspector Tony Pritchard called me to say he was 30 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(ish). 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 could do, apart from drink the beer in my fridge, was donate some money and hope all goes well.


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