Those Devilish, Delightful Gulls

By Marlin Bree

photo of a seagull in flight

I storm the golden gates of day.
I wing the silver lanes of night;
I plumb the deep for finny prey,
On wave I sleep in tempest height.
Conceived was I by sea and sky,
Their elements are fused in me;
Of brigand birds that float and fly
I am the freest of the free.

Towering black and high above the Sawtooth Mountains, storm clouds were rolling in swiftly — too swiftly. I glanced northward. It would be a close race for my 20-foot centerboard sloop Persistence and me. Any old port in a storm, I said as I swung into a tiny harbor, guarded from menacing Lake Superior by a low-lying island. I dashed forward to drop both Danforths in a classic defensive V-shaped pattern when the first unstable gusts rocked my ultra-light wooden pocket cruiser. Whoom! Chill-cold downbursts hit my boat, canting it from side to side, fighting the anchors.

Suddenly I realized I was not alone. Near the water's edge stood a brave little band of gulls, bobbing up and down in the blasts — and curiously looking back at me. Vroom. I braced myself as the gale began to show its teeth. We canted sideways, vibrating and rattling in the wild winds, then righted. Gull watcher that I am, I had to sneak a peek at my feathery friends. Were they blasted off that sand spit? But not to worry. They had lined up in a row to face the wind, ducking their heads down and putting their tails up. I figured out their secret: They were using their bodies as airfoils to make the wind press their tiny feet into the sand. Some wobbled drunkenly in the gusts but quickly regained their balance. They remained at their posts, like good soldiers, until the storm abated. Then they flew away.

To me, gulls are the most interesting of birds. From an early age, when I saw my first gull on Puget Sound in Washington, I became an avid gull watcher, and today I go to great lengths to watch them and to observe their behavior, sometimes aboard my trailerable sloop. With their distinctive V-shaped, high-aspect-ratio wings, they're wind machines worthy of any wind sailor's study. Marvels of sophistication, gulls are able to shape and reshape their wing angles and even individual feathers for the best aerodynamic effect. They hover, soar the thermals, and then suddenly fold their wings, dive into the water, and instantly become fully aquatic. When they bob up again, they become airborne with just a few powerful flaps of their wings. I stand in admiration: Whoever designed these birds must have been a genius.

Despite their beauty, gulls are not entirely appreciated. "Wharf rats," say some old-time waterfront people. "Nuisances," say some boat owners. Those whose boats the gulls would favor sometimes say worse. Gull darn it, but I sympathize. Gulls poop on Persistence's bright-finished teak deck and mahogany cabin top. I take care of any birdy problem when I do my pre-sail inspection. When I first arrive at my boat, I get a pail of lake water, splash it down as needed, wipe with paper towels, and dump the used wipes into a disposable plastic bag. Some boaters have tried other methods of dealing with gull poop by attempting to scare them off with old CDs flopping from a spreader, fake owls, and even lengths of ropes, but gulls are smart, quickly adapt, and it seems revenge is not far behind. One does not mock the gulls.

photo of a seagull begging for food

To me, the solution is to coexist with nature. Frankly, gulls were here first — long before boaters. You gotta share the air and water. What the gulls put down, the lowly skipper wipes up. Interestingly enough, in the late 19th century, gulls' pretty feathers, plumage, and even entire wings adorned women's millinery to such an extent that gulls were in danger of becoming extinct. But thanks to protective wildlife legislation, gulls have made a big-time comeback. Gulls are medium to large birds, with the largest gull (the Great Black-backed Gull) having a wingspan of almost six feet. There are 45 gull species in the world and the most common of these is the Herring Gull (wingspan of up to 57 inches); frankly it takes a real expert to tell gulls apart. They fly exceedingly well, are good gliders and hoverers on thermals, but also can achieve speeds up to about 45 mph. A gull has thousands of feathers, which weigh more than its ultra-light hollow bones, and to stay flyable, gulls spend up to 10 percent of their waking hours preening them.

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