Your amiable cousin, the sea gull

He can be a wit, a wonderful guy in company and a fine family man. But you can’t count on him. Often he’s dumb and fickle. And, like you, he frequently eats too much and simply can’t mind his own business

BILL STEPHENSON January 19 1957

Your amiable cousin, the sea gull

He can be a wit, a wonderful guy in company and a fine family man. But you can’t count on him. Often he’s dumb and fickle. And, like you, he frequently eats too much and simply can’t mind his own business

BILL STEPHENSON January 19 1957

Your amiable cousin, the sea gull

He can be a wit, a wonderful guy in company and a fine family man. But you can’t count on him. Often he’s dumb and fickle. And, like you, he frequently eats too much and simply can’t mind his own business


Among the bird watchers and clockers who chart the doings of the feathered world, few devote much time to those sturdy white extroverts which, though many of them never see the sea, are known to all as “sea gulls.” To ornithologists the gull is neither economically valuable like the duck, rare like the whooping crane nor a pest like the starling or sparrow. Amateurs look on gull-watching as too easy to be much sport. You need no cunningly camouflaged blind or strong glasses. Just sit down near where gulls are patrolling and bring out your lunch. Soon, they are watching you.

Nor do poets, except in ribald moments, look to this lumbering clown of sky and garbage dump for inspiration as they do to the lark, the nightingale and the eagle. Instead of “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!” the salutation at sight of any of the sixty-odd different kinds of gulls is likely to be “Scram, you hungry-looking bum!”

To those who like to picture the gull as a figure of ridicule, it may come as a jolt to realize that the virtues and faults of the gull— probably more than those of any other bird —are essentially those of man himself. Like the family homo sapiens, the Laridae or gull family has survived against many foes and adapted to living everywhere on earth. Like man, gulls are social animals, preferring to nest in colonies. Like some humans, both mom and dad gull share the baby-sitting.

The gull, too, comes in various shades from pink to brown. He may be small as a robin or large as a turkey. And though at home in the air or water—as man has learned to be— much of his foraging is done on foot.

As a family the Laridae can be stupid or resourceful, faithful to one mate or outrageously fickle, protective of their young or indifferent

to their fate. If nesting materials are at hand, they may build quite elaborate nests, but if not they think little of laying their three-egg clutch on the bare sand. Social agencies would have no trouble citing human cases to parallel almost any gull behavior.

Most of the pleasures and troubles of gulls also stem from two very human traits: an intense curiosity about the world and a huge appetite. Their motto might well be: “Watch it till it stops moving, then eat it.” Their curiosity has caused many an accident or near-accident with

aircraft. “This big gull seemed fascinated by the way I moved the controls,” said George Gawryluk, of Ottawa, after his first solo flight. “He kept swooping back for closer looks and 1 got so unnerved I had to land.”

The gull's detractors of course would explain such incidents by saying that a gull imagines a plane is something to eat, because it’s true he’ll try to eat almost anything, of whatever size, at whatever risk. Gulls have been known to bolt a mess of dew worms after watching an angler thread a hook through them. Their stomachs grind food by muscular action and are so cavernous that often the contents can be seen when they open their mouths. So determined are they to leave no niche vacant that one was seen trying to eat a fish while the legs of a recently eaten rat still protruded from his bill.

Nor do gulls make much distinction between food and drink. During Prohibition, the U. S. government offered the sanitation department of Oakland, Calif., a dollar a ton to dump confiscated barrels of bootleg liquor into the open sea along with regular garbage. As the first load of two hundred and fifty gallons hit the water, a Heermann's gull took one sniff and gave out a joyous come-and-get-it screech to comrades.

The result was more than thirty thousand dead gulls and fifty thousand others so drunk they bashed into people and autos on the street, or wallowed woozily on the waves with the biggest hangover in the harbor’s history. Some however recovered rapidly and. like veteran barflies, sat around in thirsty anticipation of the next glorious binge. This never came, for the government hastily canceled its contract.

Like hobos, gulls never forget a handout. One gull, dragging itself down the street in Swansea, Wales, was nursed back to health in the local lockup on a diet of bread and butter. When released as healed, it returned the following week and was again picked up in what looked like a wounded condition. Again came the bread-and-butter treatment and again the release. When the bird returned a third time police got fed up and offered it nothing hut plain bread. The gull was not seen again.

“When a girl gull sees her paramour parting with food she knows it can’t be anything except love”

Ernest Thompson Seton, the writer and naturalist, reported in 1908 that around Great Slave Lake, “Herring gulls will pursue wounded game and often follow the hunter to share in the game.” He doubted the belief widely held in the area that the gulls trailed only the good hunters, but confessed that each time he set out with his gun he kept glancing over his shoulder to see how he rated with “the white rascals.”

All gulls are long-winged with splayed web feet. They can be distinguished from their nearest relatives, the terns, by their size, their square tails and their bills, which are hooked downward at the tip. Tern bills are pointed, and only one kind —the Caspian tern—is as large as an average gull. Gannets, though associated in some people’s minds with gulls, are no relation.

The few people who do study gulls often become quite maudlin about them. The American sage, Oliver Wendell Holmes, would sit and watch them for hours and considered a gull in the water a beautiful sight, “high floating like a sloop unladen.” One of the finest documentary films ever made, The Great Adventure, by the Swedish cinematographer Arne SucksdorfT, has a sequence on gulls, produced as a labor of love. Nicholas Tinbergen, the Dutch bird expert, admits frankly that he loves the Herring gull above all birds. He tells of seeing one fly off with a guillemot’s egg and then being forced to drop it by another Herring gull which then “stalled, and with a rapid manœuvre seized the egg by its pointed end as it fell, without breaking it, and went away to eat it in peace. The whole action took place in a vertical distance of about fifty feet.”

For years, bird people wrangled over whether the gull’s effortless forward motion almost in the teeth of strong winds was due to then-hidden physical laws or to some supernatural power. Even today, with fast cameras to record the slight nuances of wing declivity in what appears to be flapless flight, there is disagreement on how this remarkable feat is accomplished.

Most gulls reach adult size within six weeks or so of hatching, but do not attain adult plumage for three years or more. Young gulls of both sexes are usually grey, brown or mottled, and they molt twice a year. Even when they are adult however it is hard to tell the sexes apart. Male gulls often start the elaborate courting procedure before noticing by the reception they get that they are addressing another male. Characteristically, courting in many species of gulls includes the male feeding his lady love like a baby. When a girl gull sees her paramour part with food, she knows it must be love.

Incidentally, there is little connection between “gull” and “gullible” though a gullible person, like a gull, will swallow almost anything.

Of the sixty different gulls only about twenty-five are North American, and only nine are seen by the average Canadian. These may be divided roughly into two groups: six with white heads and three with black heads, all with other distinctions, of course. The White Heads are all big birds, ranging from the Great Black Back, the Herring gull and the Glaucous-winged gull, down past the California to the Ring-Billed and ShortBilled gulls. The smaller Black Heads are Bonaparte’s, Franklin’s and the Laughing gull.

The Great Black Back, as distinguished from his European cousin, the Lesser Black Back, has been a favorite bird around Yarmouth, N.S., ever since his huge, eagle-like silhouette used to herald the return of one of the town’s far-ranging three-masters.

The commonest gull of all, the one most Canadians see, is the Herring gull, Larus argentatus. A big jaunty dude with snowy head and chest, pearl-grey back, white tail, bright-yellow bill and pink feet, he has a voice that may sound like anything from a cow’s lowing to the snarl of a wet cat. His specific yodels of alarm, attraction and amour, however, are models of avian eloquence.

The Herring gull acts like a bright bird or a moron with equal aplomb. On Isle Royale in Lake Superior, ornithologist F. S. Daggett found four typical nests, with the normal three-egg clutch in each, on a tiny ledge of ice formed by a dashing wave. The next day the sun melted the ice and two of the nests fell into the lake.

National Film Board cameraman Ron Alexander, on location near Digby, N.S., watched a Herring gull dropping clams on shore to break them. He would drop them from about fifty feet, diving down each time to see if they had opened. “It seemed a pretty smart trick for a bird,” relates Alexander, “till I realized he couldn’t tell the difference between rock and grass. He dropped one clam tvelve times before it landed on a reck and broke.”

Who is it?

A promising violinist who won fame only after giving up both instrument and name. Turn to page 37 to see who this child grew up to he.

it was a mother Herring gull whose reactions to certain experiments by Professor G. P. Baerends, of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, startled the International Congress of Psychology in Montreal three years ago. According to Baerends, this Herring gull chose a well-spotted wooden egg twenty times normal size to incubate in preference to a lightly spotted real Herring-gull egg. Ibis did not happen once but often, the bird seemingly oblivious of the ridiculous picture it made perched high on this caricature of an egg. When a small, square wooden egg was placed near the nest the bird tried to sit on it and the big wooden one at the same time!

Psychologists concluded that when a Herring gull feels in a brooding mood, it will sit on anything. They did not feel prepared to draw a human parallel to this.

But, like humans, the Herring gull has been responsible for some large-scale colonization in this country.

The largest colony is on Kent Island in the Bay of Fundy, but he also breeds oa islands in Lake Ontario and many other places. His home is any stretch of open water, which he has an uncanny knack of finding. In 1910 hot water from Cobalt’s silver mines melted Cobalt Lake weeks ahead of any other in the Ontario northland. An early bird watcher, Arthur Cole, reported that “the lake opened on March 31, and within twenty-four hours two Herring gulls were seen floating on it.”

A memorial to gluttony

But the gull's resourcefulness in getting there first for dinner and usually being the last to leave is often his undoing and largely accounts for the birds’ high mortality rate. Studies made in 1947 on Herring gulls show that forty percent survive the perils of their first year, twenty-five percent live two years but only one percent live ten years. Old age isn't the killer—a pair of Herring gulls in a Hamburg zoo lived almost fifty years. Nor is man the culprit since gulls are protected by law: killing a gull or stealing its eggs can bring a fine of three hundred dollars or six months in jail, although licenses may be obtained to hunt them in special cases where the gulls may prove a nuisance. The gull’s big enemy is his appetite, it seems. He’s so preoccupied with eating and gorges himself so thoroughly that he doesn’t notice or doesn’t care if an enemy's around. And so he’s a soft touch to larger predators, including other hungrier gulls.

His appetite, however, has often endeared him to man. and in fact resulted in the California gull being made the state bird of Utah. He is honored in Salt Lake City by a fifteen-foot monument erected “in remembrance of the work of the California gull at a critical time in the community's history.” The incident thus immortalized took place near the Wasatch Mountains in 1848, when the Mormon pioneers, after a terrible winter in which they were reduced to eating thistles and tree bark, toiled to plant a new crop. Hardly had the green sprouted than a plague of grasshoppers —the locust hordes of Biblical talcswept down over the fields.

The desperate colonists burned, crushed and flailed at the insects, but to little avail. Those too weak to fight prayed. And suddenly their prayers were answered. Out of the west came thousands of California gulls, filling the air with their wings and their raucous hungry cries.

“The thankful people left the fields to the white angels,” runs an eye-witness account, “and in the morning found great piles of dead grasshoppers eaten and disgorged. The gulls kept up the good work till the scourge was past and they became tame as poultry.”

California gulls halted a plague of field mice in Nevada in 1908 and a similar epidemic in southern Saskatchewan the following year.

The Ring Bill, easily picked out by the black band around his yellow bill, was

“the common gull” to James Audubon when he visited Grand Manan, an island in the Bay of Fundy, in the 1820s. Ring Bills could not withstand the poachers who killed them for their meat, their eggs or their feathers, which were used to adorn women’s hats. Now the Ring Bills’ haunts are around Lake Winnipeg and other prairie lakes and they are the unpaid garbagemen for many a prairie town. The Short Bill, smallest of the white heads, sticks pretty well to northern prairie lakes in summer where there is less chance of battling a Herring

gull for every mouthful of food. He winters on the west coast.

The three Black Heads are quite different from each other. The largest is the Laughing gull, a rowdy with whiterimmed eye and a raucous laugh, found mostly on the Atlantic coast. At courting time however, he blushes pink as any maiden. His favorite sport is to stand on a pelican’s head and badger the slower-witted one to open his mouth. Then, with a hoarse mocking screech, he’s in and out of the capacious bill in a flash, usually with the pelican’s dinner.

Franklin’s gull, or "the prairie pigeon,” is the nomad of the tribe and nests all over the prairie. Small, with an unmistakable warm rosy breast all summer, this bird is noted for the care it takes of its young. A Franklin mother will feed and shelter all the young in her area, whether they want it or not*. Franklins can often be seen following the prairie farmer’s plow, feasting on the grubs and worms he turns up.

The name Bonaparte’s gull (le goéland de Bonaparte) was given this tiny bird with the white triangle on his wing tip by French Canadians in whose northern spruces many of them nest. The Bonaparte they honored however was not Napoleon but his gracious relative, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, a naturalist who lived in Philadelphia in the 1830s and often visited Quebec. Found in winter in Vancouver as well as the Great Lakes, these gulls have been seen recently on the upper Fraser River feeding on dead salmon.

We seldom see many others in the gull family, for they spend their time foraging in the Arctic. One of these, the Ivory gull, is so snowy white and neat that he looks like an angel. But, like a highly scrubbed small boy reaching a party just in time for the cake, he will zoom up to a dead whale and in a few seconds of frantic, noisy gluttony his saintly raiment will be a smeared ruin. Other Arctic gulls are the huge Glaucous or Burgomaster, the rare Ross’ (or Rosy) gull and the sea-ranging Kittiwakes.

Andrew Macpherson, of Ottawa, a student at McGill, has spent the last two summers in the far north on grants from the National Research Council and the Arctic Institute, studying several Arctic gulls. Besides observing their habits and banding those he could reach, Macpherson had government permission to shoot others to take their measurements. If this were done early in the short season, the remaining gull of a

pair might mate again, but if nesting were well advanced and another clutch of eggs could not possibly hatch young in time for them to be flying before snow fell the remaining gull would usually just leave.

In civilized areas the gulls’ human neighbors are often glad to see them go, although no one doubts their value as scavengers nor that they help fishermen locate schools of fish. But many claim they also harm crops and other birds and are a menace to air lanes. In the Maritimes they often eat fish in the nets before fishermen can retrieve the catch. In the United States there were 473 bird-plane collisions in one four-year period, one resulting in three deaths. Most of them involved gulls.

U. S. air authorities have tried several methods to keep gulls away from airports. One stunt at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn was to tape-record a gull’s cry of alarm and blast it at the birds. That worked fine if reception was good, but with the slightest distortion in the recording not a bird stirred. A similar experiment at Dorval in Montreal left the gulls cold but drove nearby residents crazy.

The British Air Ministry has tried various means of ridding airfields of gulls but all have led to galling, bitter defeat. Scarecrows, poison and shot guns bothered the birds only momentarily, fearsome kites left them cold and even high-frequency sirens were of little use. Finally the ministry unveiled its secret weapon —falcons. These caused havoc for a time among the gull population. Then, to the dismay of the air ministry, all the falcons were shot down by bird fanciers. “Can’t have them beasts around scaring my pigeons,” said one proud marksman.

The ministry capitulated, suggested windshields on aircraft thick enough to repel even a Black Back at top speed.

Other efforts to curb the wayward gull seem to backfire as well. For example, at the request of four New England states, Professor Alfred O. Gross of Bowdoin College, Maine, tried to find a method of keeping Herring gulls from breeding too rapidly. From 1934 to 1938 U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service experts pricked holes in gull eggs along the New England coast. The pricked eggs went bad, however, or the gulls just ate them and laid three more. So between 1938 and 1953, Bowdoin students sprayed 1,017,790 eggs with an oil-formalin mixture that keeps eggs from hatching. Mother Herring gulls often sat on these eggs from spring till fall, never suspecting that the fault was not their own.

Evidence now has indicated however that in spite of a million lost eggs. New England’s Herring-gull ranks are not noticeably depleted. The young hatched from unsprayed eggs evidently had so little competition for food that a high percentage survived.

This outcome would hardly please Hollywood director John Huston who ha¿ to scrap miles of color film because of gulls during the shooting of Moby Dick.

The location was the Irish Sea off the Irish fishing village of Youghal. Huston needed gulls for a scene depicting the whaler Pequod nearing port. He ordered prop men to toss bread overboard, and wa> pleased with the way gulls appeared for the feast. Later, however, when he needed other shots showing the Pequod far at sea where presumably there were no gulls, they refused to leave. In desperation, as fine weather waned and money ran down the drain. Huston broke oui air guns, smoke bombs and noise makers—but to no avail. He finally rewrote the scene to allow gulls far at sea.

This is no error, because gulls trailed Columbus and later the Spanish Armada. Did they suspect that the dispensers of

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to Who is it? on page 34

Gisèle LaFlèche, who studied to be a concert violinist in Canada but became one of North America's top popular

I singers as Gisèle MacKenzie.

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largesse aboard these unwieldy vessels might themselves become the pièce de résistance?

Like Huston, the operators of Golden Gate racetrack in San Francisco hope never to see another gull. For a time in 1948 when three thousand gulls lined the rails every day the operators found them a crowd-catching novelty. But the gulls became temperamental. When the race started and the crowd shouted. “They’re off!” the gulls as well as the horses took off—all three thousand of them.

The effect on the horses was pitiful. They bolted or threw their riders, rearing in panic. The usual methods of scaring birds were tried but nothing worked till the owners got permission to shoot ten of them and hang them on stakes as a warning. For some reason, perhaps owing to their own deafening cries of alarm, this did the trick and the gulls went away.

Actually, though a few may fume at him, the gull is nobody’s enemy. And though he is rowdy and raucous, a gashouse ganger in a Park Avenue getup. a funny fellow ever ready for a serious eating session, he is nobody's real friend. A gull is a gull, and that is saying the worst and the best about him.

What the gull thinks of man, that other kind of biped in his bailiwick, is hard to say. Probably he thinks man a fine fellow, setting up those lovely free lunch counters called garbage dumps on the edge of towns, building lighthouses so he can admire himself in the glass. But the only time he speaks for publication is when you molest him or remove his lunch.

At such times, the opinion of the human race expressed by that big bird in the white suit is likely to be unfit for human ears, ic