Saw two with fish on the secret bridge recently.
One flew overhead, the shiny wet corpus dangling from its beak, the other perched on the bridge railing, head tilted back, chugging its catch.
Gulls love to hunt from this Bailey bridge, a cool structure that was invented by British engineer Sir Donald Coleman Bailey during World War II with function of quick construction and the ability to bear great loads. This one, all of 400 yards long, connects the coast of New Jersey with Ellis Island. It cost $2.4 million to build in the 1980s and is invisible to most people – unless they are on staff at Ellis, or perhaps a contractor, or making a delivery or a park police. It’s how I drive to work.
Me and the gulls. They’re always working, even when they are standing stock still. Ever alert, ever watchful. Steely-eyed. Focused. Did you know that seabirds’ sense of smell is excellent? As good as their eyesight.
And please, don’t call them seagulls. There is no such thing. Thirty-four species of gulls can be found throughout the world. They belong to a large family named Laridae, which also includes terns, kittiwakes, and skimmers, with a Greek derivation meaning “ravenous sea bird.”
I think I’m being followed. Are they everywhere? Or is it just me. Here is the WPA-commissioned mural at LaGuardia’s Terminal A, which I noticed as I waited to enter security this morning.
Flight, imagined by James Brooks in 1940, got painted over in 1952 by rabid McCarthy-ite forces who thought it was pro-commie. By a miracle it had been preserved beneath a coat of varnish, to emerge just as beautiful when restored in 1980. It tells the story of Icarus and Daedelus and Pan Am all at the same time, accompanied by, what else, a flock of gulls.
In fact, gulls are everywhere. Gulls thrive in the thousands, the millions, all the world over. Naturalist Adam Nicolson in his masterful work The Seabird’s Cry focuses his attention on gulls as well as puffins, gannets and the mighty albatross. It is required reading if you want to understand these canny creatures.
You do not ask a tame seagull why it needs to disappear from time to time toward the open sea. It goes, that’s all. So said Bernard Moitessier, the French sailor famous for round-the-world single-sailing adventures, who knew a thing or two about disappearing toward the open sea.
When you take note of gulls you’ll see differences in their appearance – herring gulls, most common around New York Harbor, feature grey wings, while the ring-billed have, of course, a black ring around the bill. There are others too, but the point is they all, as Nicolson puts it, share the same “mentality, their opportunism, their particular mixture of the brilliant and the obtuse.”
Yes, they can be greedy, yes, they can be loud and obnoxious. But can’t we all? Nicolson observes that unlike most sea birds, gulls are “coastal creatures, living on the ecotone, that margin between life systems, picking at the leavings of the tide, relishing the comings and goings of a beach. They are not unlike us, who have always thrived on the shore, shuffling our way through its multiple resources, turning to the sea when the land is inadequate, to the land when the sea refuses to deliver. We and the gulls are co-habitants of the same world, uncomfortably recognizing each other, thriving in the same way, behaving badly in the same way.”
I’ve noticed them during the past year strutting their stuff at Ellis. They like to lurk near the outdoor café tables, begging for table scraps, which people gladly give them even though they might know that feeding wildlife human victuals is bad for beings not human. They make a lot of noise because they are expert communicators. Again, Nicolson: “This is the herring gull’s long call, its neck down first, hieeee, then a sudden jerking up, the head high, undulating, yellow mouth wide open, its throat visibly oscillating with each syllable, the whole body gradually bending forward, a marshalling cry, ay ay ay ay ay, slowly lowering so that the gull ends nearly horizontal, its urge to call exhausted and all conviction gone.” Crisis over, it settles.
In coastal nesting grounds, colonies of thousands, they engage in complex social behaviors. They mince, dance and vocalize about everything from hunger and possible predators to anger, to submission, to, yes, coupling.
In fact, gulls have a noble history in the study of animal behavior. Nobel-prize-winning expert Nikolaas “Niko” Tinbergen studied the vocalizations of herring gulls in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In The Herring Gull’s World (1954) he observed that while at first a colony would appear to be utter chaos, “it soon becomes evident…that it must be an intricate social structure, organized according to some sort of a plan. The individuals are connected to each other by innumerable ties, invisible in the beginning, yet very real and very strong.”
A ritual called a “choking display” takes place when gull partners dispute the proper site for a nest. The behavior includes a repetitive, delicate murmur given by one member of the pair who thinks it has found the ideal spot on the ground: the huoh-huoh-huoh choke call. They might be better at negotiating this kind of thing than we oh-so-intelligent humans are.
I had a long confab recently with a juvenile ring-billed gull near the secret bridge. She still bore some brown speckles, which she would ultimately grow out of. The day was soare cu dinţi – that is the perfect Romanian phrase for a sunny but briskly cold day. It means, if you want to be literal, sun with teeth. Gulls like cold, wind, ice, you name it. They’re the opposite of fussy.
She was pecking at crumbs on the seawall and barely seemed to notice me.
I had some corn muffin crumbs of my own, left over in a paper bag from breakfast, and shook them out for her even though I knew it was wrong. They’ll eat anything. Even baby gulls. Don’t hate them for it.
A bigger, older gull chased her off. I was sorry to see her go.
As I noted, some gulls are cannibals. Others do nurture their young, but so privately that you’ll never ordinarily see a chick. Spot Baby Speckles here?
Even their color is smart.
Why are gulls mainly white? It is in fact “aggressive camouflage,” which allows birds that dive for their prey to get closer to fish without being noticed as they would if they were darker in hue. Some gulls have black faces, which researchers have found makes sense from a territorial standpoint. A black face, it seems, can frighten other gulls away.
“The castle of Cair Paravel on its little hill towered up above them,” writes C.S Lewis about the capital of Narnia. “Before them were the sands, with rocks and little pools of salt water, and seaweed, and the smell of the sea and long miles of bluish-green waves breaking for ever and ever on the beach. And oh, the cry of the seagulls! Have you ever heard it? Can you remember?”
Gulls can fly as fast as 28 mph. They can even drink salty ocean water when thirsty – each one has a special pair of glands right above its eyes to flush salt out through openings in its bill. What this means is that they can remain out at sea for longer to forage for food without needing to return to shore to get a drink of fresh water.
These acrobats of the air live between 5 to 15 years in the wild. Their roots are ancient. Fossils of the species Gansus yumenensis, first found at Changma in northwestern China, and nearly all water birds, including loons, grebes, penguins, pelicans, and gulls, can be traced back to this single common ancestor 110 million years ago, in the early part of the Cretaceous period.
They’ve had time to reach a sort of liminal perfection, if you ask me.
Next time you see a gull, don’t give it a crust of bread. Just give it some respect.