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Seagulls Deserve More Respect

Posted on 29 July 2010

by Jim Marquardt

Sag Harbor’s 7-Eleven Store better keep its doors closed tightly. Across the Atlantic a nervy seagull, christened “Sam” by the locals, plagues R.S. McCall’s News Agency in Aberdeen, Scotland. It lurks outside the shop’s open door until the proprietor and customers are distracted, then darts in and grabs a bag of Cheese Doritos off the shelf. The news shop’s patrons think it’s funny and have been compensating Mr. McCall 55 pence each for the lifted snacks. (See Sam at birdcinema.com)

Sam the seagull represents all that is good and bad about the big birds –smart, pushy, and willing to go to any lengths for a quick bite. If they weren’t so numerous and familiar, we’d have a great deal more regard for the seagulls that share the East End with us. More properly referred to as “gulls,” most of the Long Island breed are Herring Gulls, so named because herring was their favorite food before Americans generated so much garbage. A far second in the local gull population are Great Black-Backed Gulls, the largest and most dominating species of the coastal family.

It hadn’t occurred to us, but the Sibley Field Guide says that gulls are a triple-threat, uniquely adept at swimming, flying and walking. (Sibley apparently doesn’t think much of the walking styles of ducks and geese.) The most important job gulls perform in our throw-away society is to get rid of garbage, not only along beaches where they consume potentially smelly crabs and shellfish, but in garbage dumps, mall parking lots, and on our own Long Wharf where they clean up after fishermen and sloppy ice cream eaters.

It’s a wonder how gulls can eat everything from dead crabs to French fries, yet stay so trim and healthy. One reason is the gull’s throat, essentially a gravity chute. The bird tilts its head back and guides the meal with tongue and jaws until it slides down. We once saw a Great Black-Backed Gull swallow a live, foot-long eel. It was fascinating and revolting. The gull looked stunned after its gustatory feat, but eventually was able to get airborne. Apparently a gull’s gastric juices could digest stainless steel.

The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology calls the Herring Gull “the quintessential basic seagull,” high praise considering there are 20 species in the family “Laridae.” The Herring Gull’s head and breast are snowy white, back light gray, wingtips black with white highlights. Its slightly hooked bill is yellow with a red spot near the tip of the lower mandible. One naturalist thinks gull babies peck at the spot to call for food. While perched on a piling, the gull holds its head erect in a haughty pose, though it’s probably just keeping an eye out for the next nosh. Its legs are flesh-colored or a chic pink.

Gulls drink both fresh and salt water. A pair of glands above its eyes flushes out salt through openings in the bill. They might live as long as 25 years, but five to 15 is more common. We often see adolescent gulls in their dirty brown plumage, but never see babies. They are sheltered in nests for months and fed by monogamous parents who regurgitate entrees for the little ones. Nests of vegetation and sticks are built on low ground in remote areas miles from where you see mature birds.

Gulls generally are peaceful but have been known to attack intruders if chicks are threatened. A few years back, mail delivery in Devon, England, was suspended because mailmen were dive-bombed for getting too close to nests. (The British Isles seem rich with gull stories.) It may be hard to believe now, but John Hay, author of The Sandy Shore, says that in the 1920s Herring Gulls were rare along the East Coast, destroyed for their feathers and eggs, and a law was enacted for their protection.

The most famous story about gulls goes back to the late 1800s. Mormon settlers in Utah were ready to harvest their first crop of grain when a giant mass of crickets descended on the fields and began chomping away. The farmers feared total loss of the wheat they needed to get through the winter. Suddenly, a miracle. Thousands of gulls flew in from the Great Salt Lake, gorged themselves on the crickets and saved the grain. The grateful Mormons passed a law prohibiting anyone from killing a gull and erected a monument in Salt Lake City commemorating the event. Guess what is Utah’s state bird.

Like all birds, the gull’s survival depends on the condition of its feathers, made of a tough and flexible material called keratin which also constitutes the bird’s beak. A “uropygial” gland at the back of the gull’s tail emits a waxy oil. By rubbing the gland with its beak, the gull picks up the oil and uses it to waterproof and condition its feathers. The airfoil shape of the bird’s wings is created by flight feathers called “remiges.” Tail feathers, called “retrices” act as a rudder to balance and steer, and like airplane flaps, turn downward to brake the bird on landing. Renowned ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson says gulls are superb flyers. Anyone would agree who has watched them glide along the beach, effortlessly dipping and climbing, even against the wind, or soaring aloft on thermal air currents.

Gulls are independent. They may fly in a flock, but not in formation, and just as often you will see one alone, busily tracking back and forth between bodies of water.

Not everyone is enamored of gulls. A couple of years ago, Caesars Atlantic City complained that gulls had taken over the resort’s famous boardwalk. Groundskeepers at Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, are trying to eject gulls from the field because players have confused them with baseballs. No wonder the Tigers aren’t contenders.

Ogden Nash wrote a playful poem about gulls:

Hark to the whimper of the sea-gull

He weeps because he’s not an ea-gull.

Suppose you were, you silly sea-gull

Could you explain it to your she-gull?

Seagulls

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