Sterna paradisaea, or the Arctic tern, is a seabird that breeds in Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. Also, a species the chairman of a respected university zoology department might be sent away on sabbatical to study for four months to clear his head after an emotional breakdown.
No roads. No electricity. To study this creature, one is airdropped by helicopter, along with an all-terrain vehicle, a tent, and four months’ worth of freeze-dried food.
Arctic terns mate for life, unlike wives of zoology-department chairs. At no time was a female tern observed in a foreign nest, especially not one belonging to another zoology professor or, say, a fraternity-house “kegger” nest. All the female terns stayed in their own damn nests, incubating their own damn eggs, just as evolution intended.
Within the Arctic-tern colony, courtship involves an intimate dance of strutting, with heightened tail and low extended wings. Which is different from how it works on a university campus, where it involves 17 years of nurturing a false marriage, ignorant as the female sleeps her way through the zoology department, followed by the English department, followed by the university rowing team and various members of the golf-course grounds crew.
Terns emit continuous high-pitched shrieks. There are a quarter-million terns in a colony emitting these jarring cackles, so an observer might lie awake all night wondering how things had come to this.
Arctic terns scatter when an observer—on a three-day bender drinking homemade swill and hallucinating on berries picked from local flora—drives through their flock in an all-terrain vehicle. The terns tend to squawk in one cacophonous pitch as the observer hollers Fleetwood Mac lyrics, swerving back and forth through their nesting grounds, praying for a sinkhole or ditch that would halt the vehicle suddenly and snap his neck.
Arctic terns are a selfish species. Although a colony can lay up to 1 million eggs, they defend to the death each one. Should an observer, tired of eating freeze-dried food for seven weeks, attempt to obtain a solitary egg for his breakfast, he would be chased by the flock back to his tent.
Arctic terns feed on small marine invertebrates. Each morning, the colony heads to sea. This presents an ideal opportunity to observe the nests and collect breakfast.
Survival of the Fittest
An observer is better off simply targeting the hatchlings and the old, weak, and injured adults. Arctic tern, mostly dark meat, is an excellent source of protein. Once the feathers are removed, the meat can be used for tern Stroganoff, tern burgers, and mac-a-terni and cheese.
A Norwegian hunting party noticed several tern pelts drying in the tent, along with a tern smoking jacket I had crafted. They offered $10 per pelt. Apparently, the Arctic terns are the lifeblood of the Norwegian hat-making industry. Over a dinner of tern schnitzel, a business agreement was forged, making me a tern-pelt supplier.
As a species, Arctic terns are suspicious by nature. Should a couple thousand of their brethren come up missing, the colony will single out the one observer wearing a tern smoking jacket and stare at him for long periods. Incredibly long periods. A quarter-million birds. Just staring. All day.
Arctic terns have no sense of humor. When an observer, crazed from living among fowl for 14 weeks, begins yelling humorous sayings at them, they just continue to stare. “As the World Terns!” the observer might say. Or “To everything—tern, tern, tern!,” wittily substituting the word “tern” for “turn.” “There is a season—tern, tern, tern!” Because it’s ironic, just like divorce. And it’s sung by the Byrds—hah! But terns don’t get it.
Loss of Tenure, Mind
Know what else is ironic? Looking out at the morning snow and spotting a search party of your former colleagues, just staring like the delicious terns once did. Because not only have you been gone 14 months instead of the required four. You have wiped out an entire North American Arctic-tern colony, the pelts of which are drying everywhere. And you’re wearing a smoking jacket and screaming things like “Tern for the worse! Point of no re-tern! Get it? Tern?”