Like so many humans today, Nigel trusted the illusion of company much more than he trusted living companions. Described as “the loneliest bird in the world”, he lived for years on Mana Island, off the coast of New Zealand, with only concrete gannets for company. They were decoys set up by conservationists to attract gannets to the island and, just before he died, three birds had become regular visitors. But Nigel seemed to have ignored them in favour of a decoy that he had fallen in love with.
Gannets are social birds, and Nigel could have flown off in search of a flock. But it takes all sorts to make a world, and Nigel is not unlike people we may know. Humans who used to keep in touch in the literal sense of the term now prefer electronic contact. It requires little effort and you don’t have to clean up after your friends. In some countries, it is no longer unusual to live with automatons made to order, and spare oneself the demands of a human relationship. And it has become easy to be lonely in the crowd. Some of the most densely peopled spots, like airport terminals, are also the loneliest. For those who can’t adjust to isolation, government help is at hand. Last month, Theresa May appointed Tracey Crouch the first minister for loneliness of the UK. In the US, former surgeon-general Vivek Murthy has warned of the health hazards of loneliness, which has apparently doubled since the 1980s.
Loneliness isn’t strictly for the birds, but Nigel’s means of coping was not quite human. Someone who buys a robotic partner knows what they’re doing. But we’ll never know if Nigel understood that his lady love was a concrete decoy and chose to ignore the fact. Or was he just a gullible birdbrain?