Seagulls have always fascinated me. As a boy growing up on naval bases I used to enjoy watching them dive from great heights and skim across the surface of the water. I always thought of them as the ‘eagles of the sea,’ despite the fact that the sea eagle is an entirely different type of bird. I also conveniently ignored the fact that most seagulls are really scavengers that would prefer trailing garbage scows looking for moldy refuse rather than preying on the creatures of the deep.
Their flocks, which at distances appear to be great swarms of white insects, enthralled me and often, as a teenager living on the shores of Narragansett Bay, I would hike out to a small bird sanctuary and spend hours watching them argue with one another on the beach, chase one another through the air, and at times my gaze would fix upon one lonely gull flying high above the others majestically scanning the world below his steady wings as if he alone were the king of all he surveyed.
Gulls are interesting fliers. They can soar for long distances, gaining speed as they gently descend, or they may flap their long wings and execute cunning maneuvers with great skill and daring, wending their circuitous way among their kin. They are just as interesting in repose, however. They may bob up and down on the swelling waves for hours on end looking more like a duck than the great and mighty seagull.
Occasionally in fits of anthropomorphic fancy, I have decided that seagulls are sentient in much the same way as people. I’ve read that gulls have been known to live up to forty years and one day, as I sat on the railroad tracks on northern Aquidneck Island staring out at the gulls calling and chasing each other away from their food, I began to wonder what thoughts might come to a mind that spends hours on end, year after year, soaring over the desert of the sea.
I would put myself in their tiny, but imperious heads and stretch my arms, rocking to and fro on the abandoned tracks imagining that I too was a great ocean bird. Swooping and diving, I imagined what it would be like to fly up to some dizzying height, and peer down on the featureless carpet of the ocean far below. In my imagining, I would then lean into a steep dive and allow gravity to pull me with the increasing velocity of Newton’s laws to the water miles below. Faster and faster I would race until at the last moment, my wings straining with the effort, I would pull up and soar away from the water, using my momentum to fly back up for another drop.
I would invariably open my eyes and find myself foolishly standing on the broken tracks, arms outstretched with a flock of gulls going about their business a safe distance away from me. They had no idea I had been soaring with them. They merely regarded me with their glassy avian eyes, making sure I did not attempt to get too close.
Most people who live near the water regard gulls as more of a nuisance than an attraction. Gulls are noisy, they crap all over everything, they chase away other birds and one never knows when a piece of lobster or crab will drop unexpectedly from the sky and explode into meaty pulp followed by a gaggle of angry gulls who have decided to throw down right in front of the startled soul who had no other intention than to walk across a parking lot. I, myself, have even been startled a time or two by shellfish falling from the sky, but it seems to me an indication of intelligence. These creatures understand gravity.
My friends have long been aware of my (misplaced, they say) love of gulls. Several years ago, in fact, I found myself in a good-natured argument about the worth of these fine birds while relaxing on public beach in Newport with my friends Stacy and Debbie. It was a perfect New England summer day, the water warm enough that one could actually break it apart and put it into drinks.
We lounged on the beach and I found myself idly watching the gulls play above us. I mentioned their grace and beauty and was immediately met with disgusted faces and knowing assertions as to the filthy nature of these birds. They are ugly. They are trashy. Not so, I countered. They are magnificent.
“I disagree,” Stacy said.
“Yeah, they shit on everything,” Debbie added.
“No,” I said. “They are beautiful and magnificent creatures. Look, there, at that one. Watch him. Isn’t it amazing the way he comes out of that dive. Just watching them in flight gives me the chills. They are the most graceful and wonderful of birds. A sea could not be a sea without its gulls; they give it character, life and vitality. Sure they can be an annoyance, and even dangerous when sucked into airplane engines, but look at them. Just look. They make flying seem so easy!”
I think I was still pontificating when it hit me. It felt like a splash of water in my eye, but it had a mass, a thickness that quickly settled in and told me otherwise. I yelped it horror as I wiped bird shit from my eye. It was burning and I had to hastily remove my contact lens (not to be reinserted until after a long bath in an enzyme cleaning solution). I ran to the water line and began flinging salt water into my eye as I tried to purge myself of the excrement that had silenced my defense of the birds who still swooped uncaring above me.
Stacy and Debbie did not stop laughing for three days. They kept the joke running by buying me a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. They assumed that I would now be anti-gull since I had now witnessed the ugly side of these hateful birds, but I must admit that I respect them more for it. I had elevated them to a plateau of ridiculous grandeur and one gull had knocked me down when rising to his defense.
I still love these great shoreline birds, and I miss them sorely now that I live in central Texas where gulls are nearly as uncommon as polar bears. I respect them more too. As with all animals (wild, domestic, and human), they are simply creatures, eking out a way to survive and not concerning themselves so much with who they may shit on in the process. But still, grim reality is not nearly as fun, as awe-inspiring, as interesting as watching them fly over the waves, swooping gracefully in search of a living.