Those Devilish, Delightful Gulls
By Marlin Bree
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.
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.
Gulls have remarkable instincts and intelligence. Watch a flight of gulls and see how they jink about the skies silently and in unison, no gull bumping into another, with no apparent signals given. They do "talk" to speak out when there's food or danger — and a lot more. People don't understand them too well, however.
Gulls are good parents and will teach a young gull how to prepare difficult seafood, such as clams. Parents fly up with the clams and drop them on a hard surface, breaking the clam open. Gulls also have "gull dances," in which gulls bob up and down on the ground, sometimes in a dance line. Here the gulls simulate the sound of the patter of rain on the ground so that worms come out — fine eating here! And there is Sam, the Scottish gull, renowned for his lighthearted trick of walking into a seafront store, seeing if anyone is watching, then going to the same rack and picking up the exact same brand of chips day after day. Making off with it to a nearby parking lot, Sam shares his prize — always the same brand of cheese-flavored chips — with fellow gulls.
But gulls still have a myth and mystery about them: Scientists have yet to figure out exactly how gulls know where to migrate each fall when they fly thousands of miles south, sometimes as far as Mexico or South America. Scientists think gulls' expert navigation involves sensing electromagnetic forces as well as observations of the sun and the stars – with a sort of built-in GPS. Migrations are tough on the birds: Only about one in four gulls makes it back.
Gulls have long had a place in seagoing folklore and legends. Ocean sailors have seen the gull as a harbinger of good news, probably because on a long voyage, the sighting of a gull at sea meant land was close. Old sailors believe that gulls are special — one should never harm a gull. Some believed that the souls of their departed shipmates were reincarnated as gulls.
I personally came across that legend one day after a terrible storm on Superior. I had fought my way aboard Persistence to a tiny island guarding the mouth of Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. Inside Thompson Island lay a spectacular harbor overshadowed by a heavily wooded hill. The water beneath Persistence was gin-clear; entering it after storm waters was like flying over air. I had little wonder that this special island had attracted Al Wray of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Al was a World War II battle survivor, who used to sail out to this island every chance he got with his wife, Georgiana. As Al grew older, he told his friends,"When I kick the bucket, I'm coming back as a seagull."
When Al died, some remarkable events happened that are still told in the North Country. A large white gull appeared the day of the funeral on Georgiana’s window and would not go away. Later, when a funeral procession of boats carried Al's ashes out to his beloved island, they heard a fluttering of large wings and a blindingly white seagull appeared — and would not go away. The lone white seagull flew overhead, wheeling near friends' boats, cavorting in the skies all the way to the island. A fellow boater explained: "I suspect Al is spending his time in paradise."
Award-winning marine journalist and author Marlin Bree (www.marlinbree.com) has written a new book, Amazing Gulls: Acrobats of the Sky and Sea (paperback from Marlor Press and also available as an e-book from Kindle or Nook). Portions of this article appeared in Amazing Gulls and are used with permission.
Bree is the author of Wake of the Green Storm, In the Teeth of the Northeaster, Call of the North Wind, The Dangerous Book for Boaters and Broken Seas: True Tales of Extraordinary Seafaring Adventures. He co-wrote the bestseller Alone Against the Atlantic with sailor Gerry Spiess.
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