Huntington’s Masked Petrel is only found on one island in the Pacific. They’re pretty big, as far as flighted seabirds go. Only the Wandering Albatross can match it in mass. Like the name indicates, they’ve got facial markings that make it look like they have black masks. It sets off their deep crimson eyes. What really makes them stand out, though, is the presence of rudimentary dental structures. Yes, they have teeth. Crude teeth. Willard Huntington called them the missing link between dinosaurs and modern-day birds.
And almost nobody believes they exist.
Willard Huntington tried to shop around various scientific societies, pleading his case with what little evidence he could get off the island. You see, the Petrels are very into recycling. The second a bird falls down, the others are all over it. They’ll eat feathers, eggshells, they’ll even crack bones to get at the marrow. Huntington lost his pinky finger just to get the fragments of an egg.
The Audubon society took one look at it and dismissed it as belonging to an already existing species of Petrel. Huntington fought his whole life to get his namesake recognized, taking a yearly expedition to the island. When he kicked the bucket, you’d be forgiven for assuming that was the end of it.
Not for our great-uncle Norman.
Norman was only a teenager when he went on the first expedition with Huntington. He was hooked. By the time Huntington kicked it, Norman was carrying the torch. Even after the few disciples that Huntington gathered got older and died off, Norman was still going strong.
The island the Petrels live on is so small it doesn’t have a name. Norm took to calling it “Huntington island” in memory of the late professor.
Every year, Norman would travel out there. Every year he would take what little evidence he could gather and set up a little show in our living room, from super 8 to camcorder and eventually to DV. He would talk about the birds like they were pets, naming them things like “Scamp” and “Plucky.” We learned a lot from those lectures, and not just what Norman intended.
The Masked Petrel is a mean goddamn bird. The shape of the markings on their feathers makes it look like they’re constantly angry, which doesn’t seem far off. Any wayward bird that winds up on their island, they destroy. They will dive for fish and leave it to flop around on bare rock for a long time before pulverizing it with their beaks.
We saw a clip of Norm attempting to play with a Petrel. The bird gives him the most evil look as he teases it with a bit of oilcloth. The wind clouds up the mic as Norm says something like “got your hankie” and suddenly the bird strikes, rolling its neck like a snake. The camera shakes and dips for a second as Norm laughs and says “you naughty baby.” In the last few seconds of the clip, you can see his hand oozing blood.
Masked Petrels aren’t just mean. They’re damn smart. Crows are smart enough to make tools. Masked Petrels are smart enough to build houses.
I’m not exaggerating that.
The stone igloos started appearing after an expedition where their tent blew away, leaving Norm and the last surviving disciple at the time to build a wind break from the rocks that made up the beach. After that visit, they began finding crude stone structures that graduated from simple stone circles to domed huts, complete with keystone. Norm took a photo of his fellow Huntington disciple removing a stone so that the roof fell in, laughing and displaying the stone to the camera.
That man disappeared shortly afterwards, leaving behind his shredded anorak.
Crows are smart enough to hold a grudge. Masked Petrels are smart enough to hold a vendetta.
You may ask: with all this photographic evidence, why isn’t the Masked Petrel a recognized species now?
Well, because Norman had lost faith in the scientific community after the death of his mentor. I also believe he wanted to keep the bird, to have something entirely his own. He spoke to them like they were his own children.
Dangerous, irritable children.
Masked Petrels hate other birds. Norm filmed a wayward Puffin struggling in from the sea, only to get dashed to the ground by Masked Petrels. Rather than kill it, however, the Petrels seemed to take sport in throwing it around, waiting until it rose only to brutalize it again. The death took twenty minutes. It was hard not to hear the Petrel’s cries as mocking laughter after that.
The Petrels got smarter with every visit. The last trip Norman made with another person, something got into the ship’s cabin and tampered with the radio, shortening the signal so that if they had called for help, especially in such a remote corner of the ocean, no one would have heard them. The radio had been screwed back into place after the sabotage, the only reason they knew it had been tampered with was sheer coincidence. Norm’s traveling companion wanted to get a diet coke from the fridge and noticed a band sticker he’d placed on the radio casing was split at the seam.
After that, Norman couldn’t get anyone to accompany him to the island. So he went alone.
The colony on that island grew with every subsequent visit. Huntington’s first paper reports that “a handful…of these miracle creatures cling to life in a desolate waste.” On Norm’s last visit, he filmed an entire circuit of the island before landing. The Petrel’s nesting ground had grown to encompass half the land.
We begged him not to go on that last trip. It was too dangerous, and he was getting on in years. Shouldn’t he think about securing Huntington’s legacy instead?
Norm brushed it off. He had something new, something he wouldn’t reveal to us, that he wanted to document. He’d see us next August!
…no he wouldn’t.
We had always known how his death would come. On the teeth of cruel birds, or in travel to their home. Our grief period was condensed, because we had been mourning him long before his death. The footage of the birds was locked in a secure location, which Norman had written directions to in his own cipher. So we buried his memory in our hearts and thought our business with those strange birds was done.
I got a disc in the mail from a cousin of mine, belongs to a yachting club. You couldn’t pay me to set foot on a boat, so he gives me all sorts of nautical updates.
The label on the tape bears a number, 34.515611, -145.371083, and my cousin’s handwriting: “sound familiar?”
I stared for the longest time until it clicked: this was the latitude and longitude of my great-uncle’s precious island.
The disc contained one video clip, recorded by a French sailing yacht. There are repeated mutterings of what I can translate without help, some variant on “what is that?” The camera man shakily positions himself, auto zoom accidentally fixing on portions of the boat before he lifts his hand up and steadies his focus on the horizon.
There is a large pillar of smoke, like that of a burning boat. It isn’t until the cameraman zooms as far as possible, until the video distorted with digital fuzz, that we can see that the pillar isn’t smoke.
It’s Masked Petrels.
In the last few seconds of video, before the camera dips and cuts off, the massive flock seems to form a face with their bodies, a face which I have crept frame-by-frame countless times in order to properly identify it as my lost great-uncle Norman.