Seagull Dreams

During our brief Cape Breton summer I emerge from the forest to spend my days by the sea, a seasonal migration of sorts. The wide open blue horizon replaces leafy green foliage. I trade the still waters of L’il Pond for the dynamic waves and tides of the Atlantic. I love to float, suspended between the endless blue sky and the briny sea. And as I float I watch the seagulls, creatures of sky and sea.

Our local CBC morning show features ‘popcorn’ interviews with local folk of note. One fun question is: ‘If you were an animal, which animal would you be?’ Ignoring the nitpicky quibble that humans are animals, it is intriguing to hear the answers. Cats and dogs rate highly, and eagles are quite popular. Once upon a time I might have said coyote, but I have switched my fantasy animal to the seagull.

Seagull? Who would choose to be a seagull? Like coyotes, rats, and Rodney Dangerfield, these critters don’t get a whole lot of respect. Even the fictional seagull from Richard Bach’s 1970 bestseller Jonathan Livingston Seagull wasn’t overly impressed by his own kind. (I wonder if Jonathon, whose reckless high altitude dives often resulted in catastrophic crashes, wasn’t really a gannet in a gull’s body.) I find it interesting that many of the most despised animals have a lot in common with Homo sapiens: They are clever, opportunistic, and highly adaptable. They thrive in a variety of habitats and will eat just about anything. Sound familiar?

Ta-da! Even this gull in all its glory doesn’t get a whole lot of respect.

But I don’t want to be a parking lot, french-fry scavenging urban gull. My human-self fled the concrete jungle, so it makes sense that my seagull-self prefers wharves to Walmarts.

The question remains: Why a seagull? Well, since this is an exercise of the imagination, why not fulfill that age-old human fantasy and fly? But none of that flap, flap, flapping of wings to stay aloft, thank you very much. I want to soar, to ride the wind, to swoop and swerve. Many birds, from raptors to ravens, can soar, but seagulls embrace both my elements, air and water. So, with apologies to the Steve Miller Band, I want to fly like a seagull.

Seagulls are adept fliers who seem to relish gusty, windy days when they can hover, zoom, maneuver, circle and soar. They are often out and about on stormy days when air and ocean are turbulent and wild. Gulls are at ease on the roughest seas, phlegmatic floaters on chaotic surf. When a whitecap threatens to engulf a gull, she flaps her wings and flits to the backside of the breaker. Rough seas churn up all kinds of critters, a buffet for gulls and seals alike.

Speaking of buffets, these birds of sea and sky are also pretty nimble on land. After beach-going humans head home for supper the gulls and crows swoop in, scouring the sand for tasty morsels: some spilled chips or cheezies, a bit of a bun, a sandy section of hot dog.

A juvenile black-backed gull goes for an afternoon stroll.
This particular bird is quite a character, acting almost tame.

Gulls’ webbed feet are ideal for swimming and work well enough on land, but they are not suited for perching in lofty treetops. No worries! We humans have provided plenty of perching options for gulls. Light standards, telephone poles, and gabled rooftops offer gulls high, safe and comfy perches where they can chill out and look down on us.

Unlike so many animals, gulls (like the aforementioned rats and coyotes) thrive alongside humans. Seagulls flock behind fishing boats, swoop in to swipe food, scavenge our leftovers, and sit atop our structures. They may not be as brainy as corvids or parrots, or have as complex vocalizations, but gulls are no birdbrains. Seagulls are smart and they’re survivors.

I’ve been using the generic word ‘seagull’ here, but bird-nerds may wonder what type of gull. I initially favoured the great black-backed gull, our largest gull with the same wingspan as an osprey. But I’ve switched over to the less sartorial herring gull. They aren’t the prettiest bird, but then gulls don’t need to impress us, just other gulls. He may look as attractive to her in his conservative grey and white plumage as a peacock does to a peahen. And unlike black-backed gulls, herring gulls also live on the west coast, which is where my seagull-self will live.

My human-self loves living in Cape Breton, but my seagull-self prefers the west coast, with its milder winters and protected islands. A Gulf Island Gull. This is fitting, since it was on Vancouver Island where I had my seagull epiphany, some 9 years ago.

I was visiting my son and daughter-in-law in Victoria, BC, in their tiny 4th floor apartment overlooking the Juan de Fuca Strait. There was much to marvel at from that vantage, but I was entranced by the seagulls. It was the first time I’d watched them at flight level rather than looking up from below. I watched these fancy fliers hover in headwinds, adjusting their wings to hold steady in buffets and gusts. I watched as they turned tail and zoomed downwind – Whoosh! – at high speed. I saw them swoop down from the top of the building right in front of the window. Like all wild animals, gulls are always on the lookout for lunch, but we humans aren’t the only animals who play. I couldn’t help but feel that these birds were having fun racing with the wind.

Along with the usual telephone and light poles, west-coast gulls can perch on a far more impressive pole. Thunderbird Park features an array of totem poles. My daughter-in-law and I were looking up, way up, admiring the magnificent carvings, when we burst into laughter. A seagull was perched on the very top of the totem pole, higher than Eagle or Raven or even the mighty Thunderbird, surveying the world below like the lord of all creation.

I also envied the gulls squatting on offshore rocks that only emerged during low tide. Oh to be able to set myself down on some rocky crag, heedless of rising tides or rogue waves. One afternoon we were sitting on a secluded beach, looking across the water at four herring gulls on an offshore rock. After a while three of the birds flew off, but the fourth chose to linger. It struck me that, while these birds of a feather sometimes flock together, they also feel free to do their own thing. My fascination with gulls grew.

Back home in Cape Breton I began paying more attention to our local gulls. One summer I felt a special kinship with a particular herring gull. At the end of the day, after the beach emptied, I would spot this same gull (I presume) perched out on the rocky breakwater, catching the last rays of the sun. I would be sitting onshore, already in the shade, mesmerized by the kaleidoscopic play of the light on the water. Each of us was alone, content in our sunset solitude.

I watched that herring gull swim alongside the breakwater, in search of a seafood supper. Boom, he’d plunge his head underwater and come up with a small crab or lobster in his bill. He’d fly his prize over to the beach and drop the unlucky crustacean onto the wet sand. Then (ugh!) he’d rip its legs off one by one, swallowing them whole, shell and all. This is horrid to watch, as the doomed creature tries to escape on fewer and fewer appendages.

Now I also like to eat shellfish, although I prefer it cooked and served with melted butter and a glass of chilled white wine. And there is currently a fierce debate about whether or not crustaceans, or other invertebrates without a centralized brain, can feel pain. But in a Darwinian world the gull’s technique makes sense – a smart gull doesn’t let his supper run away. I’ve now seen this practice many times and always feel both fascinated and repulsed. Our animal fantasies tend to break down when we blend in too much animal reality.

But hey, in the end this is all just a seagull dream. I suspect we are the only animals who imagine ourselves into other beings and bodies. We become seagulls and superheroes, ancient Egyptians and futuristic space explorers. Humans may not have wings, but in our imaginations? We soar.

Sue McKay Miller
August 31st, 2021