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Contemplating the Language of Gulls

Dick Daniels
American Herring Gull

A cold winter day on the beach, wind out of the north gusting to 30 miles per hour. Rain trying to be snow trying to be rain- all in my face. Fool that I am, I forgot my gloves. It is mid-tide and along the waterline are Black Ducks and gulls- Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed. The gulls are standing ankle-deep in the cold, cold water (not really their ankles, but what I can’t get over calling ankles), or they are wading about picking up this and that.

Two Herring Gulls are standing side by side, not exactly facing each other, but almost. First one begins to call and then the other. Is it a call or a cry? A single bright peal, like a copper bell, like a high-pitched miniature foghorn, like a tiny siren, like nothing but what it is. These calls, these cries, go on, one after the other, very occasionally together, for as long as I could stand to stay and listen.

It is definitely a conversation. I have to wonder: what the hell are they talking about? Born a naturalist, all my life I have wondered about the inner lives of animals and what they communicate to each other.

So let’s see: what are the options? The most obvious choice would be the go-to human default: the weather. Indeed, these calls seem to be absorbed by the damp air and shallow water, and at the same time reflect from and magnify through these media. But this day is not especially note-worthy- or call-worthy- to a gull: they have seen much worse. Perhaps they sense the storm that is supposed to be coming and are discussing it.

What else? Well, there are two of them: perhaps they are a couple (or a pair- a more appropriate biological term). I am not entirely certain about the social life of gulls, whether they pair-bond for life or for successive seasons; but I think it is far too early in the season to waste precious energy on the mating ritual. Other options? Another major human topic of conversation is good old-fashioned gossip: could they be commenting on others of their flock- who did what to whom the day before? Gulls are all social species so I cannot rule this out. How about food- another human favorite: many people talk about their most recent meal or their favorite treats. Perhaps these gulls are celebrating the supply of clams, crabs, scallops, bloodworms, and fish they found this day- or are complaining of the lack thereof, or of the winter scarcity of those humans who appear on the beach with bags of gull-goodies.

Beyond these ideas, what is left? There is something that is hard to put in words, perhaps best described as an expression of self, a declaration of defiant existence in the face of a pitiless world- one that does not care whether you end up dead or alive as the sun sets on another day. I am, the call says, I stand here-next to you on this beach that grudgingly provides for us. I revel in the salt water, the chilled snowy air, the sand at my feet and the gray sky above. I am gull. What a wonderful world this is and how great it is to be a gull in it.