As It Happens

'World's loneliest bird' found dead next to concrete lover

Nigel arrived on New Zealand's Mana Island a few years ago, drawn by a colony of concrete gannets and recordings of bird songs.
Nigel, the real-life gannet, right, snuggles with its mate, a concrete replica of a gannet. (Gecko Lover/YouTube) (Gecko Lover/YouTube)

Story transcript

This story was originally published on Feb. 7, 2018.

Nigel the gannet died as he lived — alone and surrounded by phonies. 

The bird arrived on New Zealand's Mana Island a few years ago, drawn by a colony of highly realistic concrete gannets and recordings of bird songs blasted out over loudspeakers.

The charade was part of an effort by conservationists to lure gannets to the island and establish a new colony.

For the first 15 years, they had no luck — and then Nigel showed up.

"Nigel was our pioneer. He was the first to arrive," Chris Bell, a ranger with the New Zealand Department of Conservation, told As It Happens host Carol Off.

But their hopes were dashed as the years passed and no other gannets arrived.

Nigel was therefore dubbed Nigel No Mates, the "world's loneliest bird."

Rocky romance

Nigel, seemingly unperturbed by the solitude, instead developed "close relationships" with the decoy birds, Bell said.

"In the absence of real gannets, he really made the most of it and he found a bird he particularly liked … and he built a nest beside her, under her nose, and he began to woo her," Bell said.

"He began courting her. He preened her. He was apparently seen to get even friendlier with her."

It was by her side that Nigel's body was discovered. 

"I always found a particular tragedy in it, in that he really got nothing back," Bell said. 

"His mate didn't reject him. She didn't accept him. She just sat there."

No interest in real birds

But it appears Nigel remained true to his concrete lover by choice rather than circumstance. 

A few months before Nigel died, the conservationists stepped up their efforts to attract gannets to the island, repainting the replicas and moving the loudspeakers closer to the ocean. 

Within 10 days, three new gannets arrived and set up shop on a different part of the island.

"Nigel never acknowledged them. He stayed up on top with his concrete mates and gave them no attention whatsoever," Bell said.

"Whether Nigel was a pioneer or whether he was just a little bit dimwitted, it's really hard to tell. Maybe a combination of both."

'Not just sad, but really annoying'

A few weeks later, Nigel died.

"Going up there and finding Nigel dead was not just sad, but really annoying because it just seemed to be the wrong end," Bell said.

"After years of being there in the colony by himself, this seemed to be the moment that Nigel should have the chance to have a real mate and to breed."

Nigel hangs out with two concrete gannets on Mana Island. (Philippa Sargent, Friends of Mana Island)

Still, Bell said the lonely gannet's gift to Mana Island will not be forgotten.

"He may have not have acknowledged them, but I think when those birds arrived in the colony and saw these concrete gannets they also saw Nigel," Bell said.

"He helped to convince them that this was a bona fide place for gannets to stop and consider it a breeding ground."

Written by Sheena Goodyear.