I have thought long and hard about writing this article, because there is nothing more likely to cause deep divisions in my home town of Hastings and St. Leonards-on-sea than the poor seagull, Brexit notwithstanding. However, I feel it’s time to make a stand for a much maligned member of our seaside community and make a case for this survivor, who experts believe has lived on this earth for over 30 million years.
I am also writing this to prove a point, as over a drink one evening a friend of mine suggested, half jokingly, that I would be hard pressed to write an article about the seagull. This then is my response, which is dedicated to my friend; I look forward to an apology and perhaps a beer the next time we meet.
Of course we all tend to use the word ‘seagull’, which is a misnomer, as we are normally referring to the Herring Gull when we talk of seagulls as they are the most populous in our seaside towns, but there are numerous other gull species worldwide, in fact about 50 at the last count, many smaller and many perhaps more beautiful than our herring gull. However, it is our common or garden Herring Gull that is our subject in this article, as this is the bird that we all know and love or hate (or both), according to our proclivities.
Throughout history, seagulls because of their close proximity to both land and sea have cast a spell over humans, who often invested them with supernatural powers. In numerous cultures they have been a symbol for man’s yearning for another existence. To Native Americans, they represented a carefree attitude, versatility, and freedom and to the ancient Welsh they were seen as an omen of bad weather and a predictor of storms.
Again in literature, over the centuries, they have been used by many writers as serving a symbolic purpose. One of the greatest of medieval Welsh poets, Dafydd ap Gwilym wrote a love poem “The Seagull” in the early 14th century, where he praises a seagull and asks it to find the girl that he loves and to tell her that he cannot live without her. He contrasts the white purity of the gull with the purity of his beloved and compares the freedom of the gull with his beloved, trapped behind the castle’s walls.
"A fine gull on the tideflow, All white with moon or snow, Your beauty’s immaculate, Shard like the sun, brine’s gauntlet. Buoyant you’re on the deep flood, A proud swift bird of fishfood. You’d ride at anchor with me, Hand in hand there, sea lily. Like a letter, a bright earnest, A nun you’re on the tide’s crest.
Right fame and far my dear has –
Oh, fly around tower and fortress,
Look if you can’t see, seagull,
One bright as Eigr on that wall.
Say all my words together.
Let her choose me. Go to her.
If she’s alone – though profit
With so rare a girl needs wit –
Greet her then: her servant, say,
Must, without her, die straightway.
She guards my life so wholly –
Ah friends, none prettier than she
Taliesin or the flattering lip
Or Merlin loved in courtship:
Cypris courted ‘neath copper,
Loveliness too perfect-fair."
The Russian dramatist Chekhov’s celebrated play “The Seagull” is also full of symbolism, which changes as the play develops. At first, it represents freedom and security to Nina, one of the main characters, when she remembers her childhood. Later in the play, a darker symbolism appears, when one of Nina’s suitors shoots a seagull and lays it at her feet, it then comes to signify her loss of innocence and destruction.
Despite the naysayers, one thing that is inescapable is the intelligence of gulls, who unlike many other birds are capable of advanced learned behaviour, as we all know to our cost when we lose our food to them. Many people will have seen gulls stamping the ground with their feet, which they have learned to do to imitate rainfall, in order to trick earthworms into coming to the surface and providing then with a tasty morsel.
I’ve also watched many times, with fascination, the tenacity of gulls breaking open mussel shells on the beach, by dropping them from a great height onto the pebbles below. They will continue time and time again until they succeed; I once saw ten attempts by one bird, until eventually he cracked the shell and gained access to the gourmet delight inside
If only they had stayed away from our own food, we might have looked more favourably on our seaside neighbour. However, we only have ourselves to blame, as prior to the 20th century it was almost unknown for seagulls to move into the towns to live. Their traditional nesting places were sea-cliffs, sand dunes, islands on the coast and inland and other inaccessible locations.
The first record of seagulls nesting on a building was in 1909 in Cornwall, but it wasn’t until the 1956 Clean Air Act, when rubbish was put into landfill, instead of being burned, that seagulls moved inland in a big way and the population exploded. This together with industrialised fishing methods, which depleted fish stocks, resulted in seagulls being forced to live in closer proximity to us. An excellent recent article on this phenomenon can be found on the BBC website Why seagulls are making their homes in our cities. This is a problem of our own making.
And so we have to accept and deal with with the consequences of our actions. The seagull has a tendency of fixing us with his yellow, rather alien eye, while we are eating in the hope of a morsel. It is all rather unnerving, however I have found that the only way that deters this behaviour is to stare right back, and within no time at all the gull backs off. There’s nothing a gull hates more than being stared at.
One thing that drives many people insane are the noises that seagulls make and I must admit when woken up by a chorus of dozens of seagulls in full song at 4 o’clock on a Summer’s morning, it can be somewhat trying. However, once you learn what they are trying to say, for me, the fascination outweighs the irritation. Every crying, mewing and screeching serves a specific purpose.
There is the long call, the most common sound that everyone recognises, which seems to say “this is my patch and I’m here to stay”, then there is the mewing sound much mistaken for a cat, which is parent calling to it’s chick and where the old English name of ‘Mews’ for a seagull is derived. Other calls are the choke, yelp and the copulation call, the latter of which is, as you would imagine, rather distinctive. Finally there is the whining and whimpering sound that the babies constantly make as they call out to their parents for food and attention. All of these sounds and more can be heard in an article written in 2019 for the Seattle Times What’s that Gull saying?
Seagulls live very long lives, compared to many birds, in the region of 20 years, which also gives them a long time to perfect their learned behaviour skills. Gulls are monogamous and a pair of gulls will usually stay together during their lifetime, returning to the same nesting place every year. They also share the parenting activities on an almost equal basis, a practice many humans could learn from. There is a pair that has returned to the same chimney in the house opposite to me, ever since we moved here 8 years ago and this year, for the first time, I was able to monitor their progress on a daily basis though my binoculars, from hatching to fledging, a fascinating and rewarding experience.
What would the seaside be without the the crashing of the waves and the screaming of the gulls overhead? John Masefield put it perfectly in his 1902 poem “Sea Fever”, in which captures the sheer exhilaration and joyousness of being on the seashore.
"I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky, And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by; And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking, And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over."
These creatures have inhabited this earth since the time of dinosaurs, millions of years before the first humans appeared in Africa, and they may well long outlive us, if we manage not to destroy this planet of ours first. It’s time we made our peace with these wonderful creatures, for after all, in many ways, we are not so very different from them.