The Lonely Life of Nigel the Gannet Wasn't in Vain

Nigel stands with the stone birds that made up his adopted 'colony' on Mana Island. Gecko Lover/YouTube

Nigel, a gannet who resided on New Zealand's Mana Island, lived as he died, surrounded by concrete "friends."

Ranger Chris Bell discovered the body of the gannet in late January, just weeks after three more gannets had arrived on the island.

"It seems like such a wrong ending for Nigel to die now,” Bell told The New York Times. "Just when it looked like it could get better for him."

Nigel and the real bird

In the 1990s, conservationists added some 80 decoy gannets to the island in an effort to attract actual gannets to the island. Their efforts were unsuccessful until some time between 2013 and 2015 — conservationists differ on the year — when a lone gannet arrived on the island. Nigel became the first gannet to call Mana Island home in 40 years.

The arrival of Nigel was cause for celebration and then concern as conservationists realized that not only was Nigel alone but that he was head-over-wings in love with one of the stone decoys that had attracted him to the island in the first place.

Nigel was observed caring for the concrete replica. He would groom the statue and chat with it; Nigel even constructed a nest made of twigs, seaweed and mud for it.

Naturally, the decoy never reciprocated Nigel's overtures.

"I think the saddest part of this story is what a frustrating existence to be courting this stone bird and getting nothing back," Bell told The Times. "Not getting rejected, not getting encouragement."

Revitalizing an island

Those three other gannets that arrived weren't much help in getting Nigel to come to his senses. They mostly kept to themselves on the other end of the colony, and Nigel, for his part, didn't seem interested in leaving his "lover."

However, their presence is a testament to the value of Nigel staying with his concrete paramour.

"From a conservation point of view, he was a massive asset to have. Because the concrete gannets — they may have fooled Nigel — but they never fooled another gannet. We always considered Nigel increased our chances of getting a colony going, and that seems to be in the end what happened," Bell explained to the Guardian.

The attempt to get gannets back to Mana Island is one of several seabird projects currently underway in and around New Zealand, and it's part of a wider initiative to bring native wildlife back to places that had been overrun by invasive predators.

Mana Island is now pest-free and has been repopulated with 500,000 native trees, lizards and other seabirds. The seabirds, in particular, are important to the island's ecosystem as they provide nutrients for the soil and for insects, reports the Times.

The decoys, along with solar-powered speakers that pipe out seabird calls, are scattered in small "colonies" around the island. They're intended to encourage gannets to settle on the island since gannets prefer to nest in areas where other gannets have already established a foothold.

In that sense, Nigel's lonely existence may not have been in vain.

"He was an attraction that helped bring in other birds — gannets like to nest where a gannet has nested before," Bell said. "It's really sad he died, but it wasn't for nothing."