by Marilyn Jones
Seagulls and the bay are synonymous. We see them bouncing along on the waves, flying overhead, and combing the beach for food at low water. Here, we have two main types of gulls: great black-backed, and herring gulls. Great black-backs, considered to be the largest gull in the world, have a wingspan of 57 – 63” (146 – 160 cm). Their backs and wings are a very dark gray to sooty black color. Herring gulls are considerably smaller, with a wingspan of 23 – 26” (58 – 66cm). Adult herring gulls have a beautiful white head and body, slate gray back and wings, and black wingtips spotted with white. Both types of gulls have yellow beaks with a bright red spot on the lower mandible. They don’t breed until four or five years old, and are long lived.
Feeding usually takes top priority in a seagull’s life; they are best known as scavengers. They enjoy just about anything edible found on the beach and provide a valuable service by cleaning up garbage and carrion. They use different methods of acquiring food, including stealing, and will rob other seabirds of their catch. A story told by a fisherman went like this: “A little herring gull landed on the bow of the boat, and I tossed a herring to him. He gulped it down and flew, but didn’t get very far, maybe thirty feet up, when a black- back attacked and knocked him down into the water. They fought, and the big gull had the smaller one by the neck. He wouldn’t let go until the he forced
Bullying is not exclusive to school grounds.
On quiet days, one can enjoy watching as gulls work hard at breaking mollusk shells by repeatedly flying straight up in the air and dropping a potential snack on the rocks until the shell breaks and they can enjoy the yummy meat. On certain warm summer afternoons, herring gulls can been seen leisurely flying far overhead, circling round and round, back and forth, making little swooping and dipping motions as they catch insects. It seems they might be doing this just for the fun of it, because really, how many insects would a gull have to catch to make a meal?
Gulls are usually found in noisy flocks wherever food is available. We all have probably seen a string of them following fishing boats, competing for anything edible that is thrown overboard. Also, they will fly a bit of a distance to wander around garbage dumps, picnic grounds, and freshly ploughed fields to pick up tasty morsels of anything from, well, garbage to worms and field mice disturbed by farmer’s ploughs. Many consider them to be nuisance pests around harbours, landfills, and agricultural areas, and they foul buildings with smelly droppings. However, their importance in keeping beaches and other areas clear of potentially harmful accumulations of garbage and dead animals is reason enough to have them classified as a protected species.
Great black-backed gulls are mostly carnivorous and prey on anything smaller than themselves. As mentioned, they can be mean and quite vicious toward smaller birds. I once watched one attacking a small duck as they bobbed around on the water. The poor little duck had to keep diving to get away from the sharp beak-blows. Every time it surfaced, the gull persisted pecking it on the head until finally, to my great relief, and certainly to relief of the duck, the gull gave up and flew off.
Very few seagulls become famous, or are held dear to anyone’s heart. One exception is the fictional Jonathan Livingston Seagull, written by Richard Bach (the great-great-great-great grandson of the Bach we all know). A spiritual self-help novella, the story tells of a young seagull that is bored with his life, ventures out on his own, and finds a “higher place of existence”. A very popular book in the 1970’s, it has sold millions of copies and keeps selling to this day.
The other exception is the comical pair, Gertrude and Heathcliff, made famous by Red Skelton as he told jokes about their antics. One has to wonder why Red thought seagulls were cross-eyed and spoke with a lisp, but it definitely worked for him.
Although not regarded by some as having the spiritual reverence as enjoyed by eagles or doves, or failing to attain credit such as is given to the red, red, robin, gulls certainly have earned a place in the overall plan of things. Despite the fact that their main claim to fame is that they are noisy, greedy, bullies, the world is, nonetheless, lucky to have them.