The British call seagulls the “thugs” of the bird world. They “detest” the birds for snatching food from picnic tables and depositing splotches on cars. Pigeons and magpies come next on the list of most loathed, followed a few slots down by the unlikely sparrow who is simply “dull looking,” a criticism that seems dubious coming from a populace of oxfords, woolens, and tweeds. But that the seagull should be so abhorred stuck with me when I read the posting on UK’s Daily Mail. I cannot imagine hating a seagull.
Admittedly, I once felt slightly afraid. Blithely hiking in our courtship days, my husband and I happened upon a huge colony of gulls on a rocky shore of Block Island. They set up a raucous alert as we tiptoed over stones, scaled boulders, and circumnavigated surprisingly huge individuals that stood erect and started toward us with the singlemindedness of a mother elephant. Surely there were eggs and young. We watched where we placed our feet as heads cocked in our direction and adults brandished their wings and Keow , keow, hahaha reached a screeching crescendo. I tried not to look how far we still had to go and how many surrounded us—each bird inquisitive, a colony, alarming. Was it a numbers game, like rats in 1984, or crows in The Birds? I suppressed images of a dozen birds dive-bombing my head or nipping at my bare toes, trusting that they were just… seagulls, after all. In fact, either could have happened. Seagulls sometimes land on surfacing whales and take a bite out of their backs, but I didn’t know that then.
I associated seagulls with open horizons and freedom. At age eighteen, with high school and parents three thousand miles behind me, my two best friends and I sprawled on the deck of a ferry boat winding up the inland waterway from Seattle to Alaska. In our army pants and bandanas, single-lens cameras and notebooks in hand, we watched seagulls cruising in our wake, wings beating, bodies gliding and suddenly diving after a tossed hot dog roll or cracker or bit of paper. I imagined the gulls skimmed on air currents behind the ferry, linking us in some ethereal way, and I mused that, like us, they didn’t care how far they traveled or how far from anything they were, especially as their white bellies and black wings glistened, backlit by the sun long past the time the sun should have set.
Perhaps I was taken to the ocean as an infant where I dreamily, incoherently, felt the cool blue air at evening or the salty stones on a beach or my mother’s lap in the warm sand, and in that silky tapestry is woven a seagull. One seagull strutting past a striped towel or flashes of white winging in and out of the sun. How many times since have I walked along a beach noting whitecaps flick across the water and white bellies of hunting gulls catching sunlight above, all white streaks dashed on a canvas, all brushstrokes on a pallet of gray-green and blue, all balance and composition, even intimations of plan, which vanish as I set foot in the parking lot and unlock the car door.
One day as I walked along the Peconic Sound, I wondered why there were no birds of any kind. And then there was one. A huge seagull with a mission. He had a mollusk in his beak, which he dropped on the pebbles. I followed about twenty feet behind. He came down, grabbed the shell and alighted about thirty feet in the air, keeping parallel to the water as I was, and dropped the shell again. I didn’t want to disturb him but I wanted to watch. He wanted to avoid me but wanted that meal. So the action repeated itself six times. Swoop down, pick up, rise, drop, pick up, advance, drop, swoop down. I was glad for his company, there was no one else. He was not part of the sky, not a decorative bit of icing on the seashore scene, but a singular bird with a mission he carried out with persistence, timing, and (it seemed) consciousness of gravity, cause and effect. I couldn’t not watch, wondering what were the ramifications of this difference in my reading of ocean, sand, seagulls, sky, all formerly coalesced as the beach? It felt like standing on the edge of an idea. It felt like someone had erased a cluttered blackboard and drawn a single streak from which I should form a letter, a word. And then I saw another, a pale gray gull flapping against the wind and scarcely advancing; it turned sideways to glide, then beat hard, twenty times before catching a quick ride, then beat again, skimmed down feet touching water and rose with nothing I could see in its toes. A young one, maybe. Nebulous gray, like just-dawn before you know if the sky is overcast or clear.
Farther down the beach a big gull was pecking at something on the sand. The dead swan, I realized. I’d seen it the day before about a hundred yards up the beach so it must have gone out with the tide and returned. I had stopped to stare at its huge crooked wings with long, disheveled feathers, its black legs and gnarled black paralytic feet, its ribcage stripped bare and shameless, its absence of a head. I had tried to keep my dog away. Now there was a gull picking and pecking though nothing remained inside the ribcage, and the bones lay there like the frame of a hand-hewn boat. The gull lifted off. He would have preferred a live crab, but it was winter, the dead of winter.
We’re repulsed by things that feed on carrion—vultures, for instance, crows ripping at roadkill. Merriam Webster defines carrion as “flesh unfit for food,” putting such birds outside the realm of the acceptable, outside the margins of our aesthetic, which trumps the usefulness of cleaning up putrefying carcasses and eliminating bacteria and disease. A recent National Geographic article bears the catchy title: “Vultures Are Revolting. Here’s Why We Need to Save Them.” After graphic photos of a blood-fest and a terrifying video from the perspective of the dead creature under vulture attack, the article shows two romantic vultures, beaks touching, and text informs us that the birds are monogamous for life. Such lifestyle redeems them; we aspire to that. But our revulsion likely stems from association rather than experience. Most of us are not Antigone, trying to shield a brother’s body from vultures. We simply think, who would eat meat that is rotten, smells fetid, likely crawling with something unspeakable, date of sale expired? Only the homeless reaching into garbage cans, or worse.
You’re more likely to find a gull stabbing the tuna sandwich in your picnic basket than eating a dead swan. Such theft suffices to elicit the hatred of the Brits and the admiration of the Irish who, as underdogs, appreciate the gull as a trickster figure. Their god of the sea, Mananna Mac Lir, often pictured as a gull, owns a boat called The Wave Sweeper and a sword, The Answerer. He shepherds souls to the afterlife, at times in a cloak of invisibility. Alternatively, he’s identified with another trickster, Bodach an Chota Lachtna, which means “the churl in the drab coat,” recalling the gray and black plumage of a seagull, a trickster who taps his feet on the ground and fools earthworms into believing it’s raining so up they come to the surface to be received by a sharp, indisputable beak. I find this impressive. Though by now the behavior is embedded in their genetic makeup, and no individual receives credit, I try to picture the first gull who happened upon the technique and wonder if he was surprised. Did he think it a one-time deal? Did he anticipate that his rain dance would bring supper once more? Would he ever taste earthworms again?
I expected to see gulls that morning on the beach. And before the mollusk dropper appeared, the sky felt apathetic, the shoreline littered with pecked whelks and empty limpets, a reminder of life not there. No keah keah keah punctuated the light lick of the waves on pebbles. No boat churned past. Small islands of ice scarcely moved.
I expected the birds to return. I assumed days filled with twenty, thirty sandpipers darting in sync, just skirting a wave, turning about face and racing back, and skies with benign clouds and seagulls swooping and keowing and doing the usual seagull-ish things. But after watching the mollusk dropper and the swan eater, I wondered why each was there and if the birds ever felt cold and if some of the family had departed for points south and how much each needed to eat in the course of a day—so many unknowns. I looked online, only to find there is no such thing as a seagull. I have to erase the word. There are herring gulls and black-backed gulls and ring-billed gulls, 30-inch gulls and 10-inch gulls—some 50 species of gulls in the vast family Laridae. Some don’t even live by the sea. If I looked, I might see a red beak or yellow, white underwings or gray, dappled feathers or solid. But since the gulls are roughly white/black/gray, we clump them together. It’s like calling everyone east of Israel, Asians.
Gulls know something about individuation. Like vultures, they mate for life.
And for some, the courtship is intimate: When she is ready she peeps Klee-ew like a chick and an interested male advances, uttering huoh, huoh, huoh (meaning I’m not going anywhere) and regurgitates at her feet. If his offering appeals, married life begins.
Seeing the tree for the forest, or gull for the sea, is only part of the story, like taking a line out of context and missing the intended irony. Like believing Huck feels bad for Jim and missing that he feels damned for betraying the institution of slavery. If one pans a broader field of vision, one can reason that no gull is born a thug. How did it become one? What environment did it grow up in? Maybe its nest was bulldozed, its shoreline covered in concrete.
Maybe oil from a single jet-ski seeped into the shallows matting the delicate barbs on its protective feathers, or pollutants spawned algae that deprived fish of oxygen. A gull who finds no minnows, crabs, or mollusks will grab a sandwich, tear through GladWrap, dart shamelessly at trash cans, steal from other birds, steal from each other. Who wouldn’t? But this is a liberal stance, not one the Brits are taking in their detestation of the seagull: the bird ought to take responsibility, cry politely when an invader’s foot comes close to its nest, find its own food, have no expectation of free lunch.
As summer approaches, families with coolers and umbrellas trundle onto the beaches and set up camp. I walk past, watching them smear on lotion and lie prostrate in the sun, inviting heat to purge them of winter months. Dozens of gulls cluster on a stone jetty about a hundred yards down the beach. Waves sigh and seethe over the rocks, bringing in crustaceans and plankton, and the gulls are busy. Food is abundant, eggs are laid. A burly man and his son head toward the jetty, fishing rods in hand. On a plush blanket a couple embraces, he leaning over her, she lifting her head and turning toward him, the top of her bikini top undone—and as he strokes her back and she sees nothing behind her Jackie O shades and he’s thinking about the night and she’s thinking about her tan, a mid-size undistinguished gull hops toward them, cocks its head, its wide-set eyes like bits of obsidian, struts, waits, hops and without a blink, snatches the just-opened sandwich, parted and fleshy in the sun.