When the birds of summer and the migrants of autumn clear off the eastern Maine coast, the avian pickin’s are sometimes meager. Oh, we have neat birds when the ice piles up on the shore and snow disintegrates into a cold rain. Bald eagles, harlequin ducks, and purple sandpipers may beguile the tedium of a bleak day, but the birds that seem to be omnipresent are the gulls. Herring gulls, mostly, but also great black-backs, ring-bills, Bonaparte’s, and occasionally an ivory gull. They are not to disrespected.
Like cats, gulls stimulate a wide variety of emotions in the breasts of humans who come into contact with them. In their graceful flight, tracing airy patterns overhead, they are the essence of bird. They can be, and often are, compared at a distance to drifting snowflakes or to ethereal beings concerned only with the empyrean, severed from the cares and dinginess that siphon buoyancy from our lumpish spirits. They are probably the creatures that wrung from W. B. Yeats the song “I would that we were, my beloved, white birds on the rim of the sea!”
Frank M. Chapman, the founder and first editor of this magazine, thought that the cries of gulls are partly responsible for their hold on us. At a distance they sound a note akin to the wailing human voice, and indeed the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the origin of the word “gull” is related to the old Breton verb goelaff, “to weep.”
Yet we detect the gulls’ seamier side too. They eat garbage. They can be a nuisance at fish canneries, a hazard at airports, and an unmitigated catastrophe at breeding colonies of other birds. And, yes, they are often noisy and quarrelsome. They tend to get their living in the easiest way possible, and we may think in our more fastidious moments that they betray “filthy habits.” Perhaps in their attributes, gulls somehow remind us of, well -us.
But the naturalist Henry Beston’s view of wild creatures, expressed in his book The Outermost House, is surely the correct one: “They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
And gulls, high overhead here on the coast on a clear, cold day, seem to gather, each to itself, the sum of heaven’s light. No, not to be disrespected.