SEAGULL, Rough, clever and noisy (079)

Also available in: nlDutch enEnglish

Lying with my back against the dunes I often enjoy watching the white seagulls with their black wing tips standing out against the blue sky while they quietly let themselves be carried on the thermals. Then I fantasize about the origins of their behaviour. This resulted in the story below.

At the end of the last ice age small groups of people lived scattered across the endless tundras and extensive woodlands. In one of these small settlements there lived the large strong Larus. A brave and rough young lad with a strong nose and a shrill voice which he used to shout loudly with whenever something happened he didn’t like, making the birds around take to the air in fright. Though still young, Larus was the most fearless hunter in the area. On many occasions this lead to him endangering his own life to save companions when they came into difficulties out hunting. And he had once killed a snow leopard that had lost its way with his two bare hands. Ever since Larus wears its white skin.

But however much he was valued, the young man in the white skin was also feared because he would start a fight with anyone he didn’t like. And, worse still: he stole food from other villagers. Little wonder that he was frequently called to task by the village elder. But his warnings and punishments had hardly any effect and eventually there was no other option left than to give this thieving hooligan the heaviest punishment imaginable: banishment from the community. Larus was given one day to get ready to leave. While busy gathering together his scant belongings, he heard that a girl had gone missing. The entire community went out to search for her and Larus went too. He found the frightened child up a tree surrounded by a pack of hungry wolves. The brave Larus chased off the wolves and brought her back safely to her parents. Everyone was grateful to him, but once a punishment had been decreed, it could not be revised and Larus’ banishment was not withdrawn.

Just before he left, Larus was visited by the child’s father with a present: “I am so grateful to you for saving my child. Should you ever be in trouble, Larus, then this crystal will save you. My father was given it by his father. Be careful though, you can only use it once.”

During his travels Larus met other exiles who were also rough types like himself; in the wilderness only the hardest types will survive. Together they moved around and gradually formed a group of rough exiles who plundered small settlements they came across.
Village elders in the surrounding area felt obliged – for the first time in history – to meet up and talk about how to put an end to these raids. It was decided that the bravest fighters from each settlement would join forces to catch these ruffians. This collaboration was successful: many of the scoundrels were killed and the survivors fled into the sandy hills on the coast. There they scoured the entire surroundings of the delta in search of food, sparing nobody or anything that came in their way.
As a matter of course it was the fearless Larus who became their leader and because he was so big, they called him the “the big mayor”.

The cold climate of the ice age changed into a milder climate; the ice melted, so that the rivers more often flooded and the sea level rose. One night spring tides combined with heavy storms resulting in metres high waves flooding areas far land inwards. The outlaws were sitting on the top of a high dune, trapped amidst the raging seas. When the sea threatened to flood their small island, Larus suddenly thought of the crystal he had been given by the grateful father from his village. With the jewel in his hand, he shouted out above the thunder of the water: “Help us! Save us!” There and then, a hair’s breadth away from certain death, the men turned into birds which flew up out of the waves. They had been saved from drowning. But their behaviour did not change one jot. They remained big, rough, shrieking and argumentative omnivores looking for food: not just fish, but also eggs and the young of other birds and sometimes even of fellow gulls. And they still face up to high waves, storms, rain and cold: Petrels, Herring Gulls, Black-backed Gulls, Black-headed Gulls, Skua, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls.

Gulls (Laridae) are rough and clever. They are true opportunists, looking for the easiest way to get food. Because of the large amounts of waste we produce, gulls often live near humans: fishing boats, in and on rubbish depots, ploughed fields and snack bars.

There is often internal fighting. Some types are true pirates, in particular, the Great and Arctic Skua: these live on food stolen from other birds that they frequently grab during spectacular chases in the sky. Other gull sorts are also not concerned about capturing other birds’ food.

All gulls living in mild climes are mainly white with some grey or black parts on their upperparts. This colouring is partly for camouflage: against the grey skies the white to greyish white colouring makes them less visible to the fish below; and from above they blend in because of  their black or grey back and wings. But their colouring is also caused by the harsh weather conditions at sea: when out at sea their feathers deteriorate faster than on land. This results in many gulls having grey wings with black wing tips. Feathers with black pigments wear less quickly and therefore many gulls have grey feathers with black wing tips.

Most gulls have a partner for life. They used to nest close to the coast, but with the arrival of the fox there, they frequently choose sites inland and on the rooves in cities. They can reach quite a high age. There is a record of a ringed Herring Gull reaching the age of 49.

There are also gulls which live far out to sea and nest on remote cliffs, such as the Great Black-backed Gull  (the largest gull we know) and the slightly smaller Glaucous Gull with a wingspan of more than one and a half metres. We sometimes see the first type in wintertime on the coast; the second type rarely. Other sorts live on the coast and both sleep and nest on the ground. They are still substantial birds with a wingspan of at least a metre: the Lesser Black-backed Gull with its dark slate grey back, whose population increase has displaced the white-grey Herring Gulls; the Common Gulls, which are very similar to the Herring-Gull; and the Black-headed Gull with its black head in the summer.