Manx shearwater – five million miles of migration


The Manx shearwater is a small white and dark grey seabird. It nests in muddy burrows on islands around the coast of the UK and Europe, as far south as Madeira, returning to the same burrow every year, before migrating back to the South Atlantic in winter. They fish during the day and return to their nests at night, screeching in the darkness. They can live more than fifty years. One ringed bird was estimated to have flown over five million miles in a life not yet over.

What guides it on these prescribed wanderings is not known; or what sends it north to breed and then south again. The seasons, the compass of stars and moon; the air freshening, a yearning for warmer airs off Montevideo and Sao Paulo, or all of these things to create an undeniable impulse to begin unimaginable journeys?

Does it compare destinations? Does it prefer the southern seas or the colder north? Does it chatter to its familiar neighbours year after year? Does it notice when old friends do not return and a different pair have moved into the closest burrow? Does it remember? Does it mourn?

Is it afraid on the eve of another migration, even after a hundred journeys? Does it think, ‘Will I be lost this time?’ Or does it know when to surrender to the cold waters, accepting the rhythm of fate, when its wings are too tired, falling, no longer soaring, taunted by the waves, suddenly soaking its feathers, making it heavy, its head ploughing in without remark, a sigh of tiny bubbles, flipped on its back, floating raggedly for a while, as other shearwaters wheel overhead (do they pause, seeing their friend go down, or do they press on?) as perhaps, rising from the blue deep, a tuna or barracuda, open mouthed, rolls and takes it?

What have these birds seen over their long lives? Wild, open oceans far from land, not caring how far, at home, having no home, no sense of home, except the wild elements, a living fragment of the elemental itself.

I have seen Manx shearwaters skimming the waves, banking joyfully, unpredictably, off Bardsey in North Wales. Even if they do not know what it is they are privileged to see or experience a freedom without visible boundaries, over land and water, in flailing airs and gales, burning oily calms and the daily taste of fish, I would swap places with that shearwater of five million miles.