Here on the Bristol Channel, the sound of late summer and early autumn this year has been the relentless whistle-squeak of young seagulls demanding sustenance from their parents and/or being playful.
I’ve been watching the town seagulls – they’re herring gulls, I believe – for a few years now. They are immaculately turned-out, opportunistic, and tremendously graceful on the wing. Like urban foxes, pigeons and the rest they have adapted cannily to urban life and human ubiquity, but unlike those other creatures they are not shy about asserting their authority and voicing their opinion of us. They are loudmouthed and pugnacious and will not be ignored.
A couple of weeks ago I met an old fellow on the pier, fresh from his daily coldwater dip, who told me he’d just lost his lunch to a seagull mob. He said he’d settled on a bench when the first bird landed on his chips, followed by four others, and in the ensuing melee they made off with his sausage and a slab of battered fish, as well as the chips.
We were queuing at the kiosk at the time, with him waiting for a repeat order. The woman at the frier had refused to let him pay a second time.
Unlike some he wasn’t one for condemning the seabirds. It’s true they poop on the windscreens of parked cars, depositing generous smears of white and black gloop which hardens into a stubborn crust. They’re also noisy and melodramatic, and startlingly large up-close when their great hinged wings are at full span. It is said that they frighten and intimidate the small and the elderly. But the chap on the pier took the view that seagulls have been here for millions of years, that it’s not their fault we’ve moved in and monopolized their natural food sources, and that they’ll probably still be here once this rocky headland with a town on it reverts to being just a rocky headland.
Intelligent questing eyes under a frowning brow. Proud prominent beak with a hint of sneer. Pristine, laundry-white plumage on the head, neck and underbelly; smoke-grey wings, equally pristine, folded beautifully across the back. Just one feature undermines the regal impression: a pair of Daffy-Duck feet.
Being dive-bombed by seagulls is a frequent experience for the innocent pedestrian in residential neighbourhoods around here during late spring and early summer. Your line of progress along the side of the street happens to traverse the territory of a nesting couple, and this is deemed intolerable. Never mind that their nursery is three floors up among the chimney pots and is several houses back, whereas you the pedestrian are clearly ground-bound, not to mention getting further from their base with every step. A pre-emptive deterrence strike is called in. One of the birds takes to the air and pursues you, circling and shrieking and dipping into a dive whenever it feels you need chivvying along – though it will shear off at the last second. If there’s a dog at your side, the attack comes closer and is conducted with extra spite. When you turn to confront your nemesis all you see is the horizontal line of its wings above what looks like a small square box studded with two black beads, accelerating towards you like a missile.
You can’t begrudge chimney-pot seagulls their impassioned protectiveness though, when you’ve seen how much care and effort they put into guarding their eggs and feeding the chicks, for weeks on end, the parents alternating turns on duty while their partner ventures in search of food.
A gull is stomping its webbed feed on the grass in the park like someone jogging on the spot, hoping to thrum earthworms from the soil by creating the illusion of heavy rain. Fully embracing the ridiculousness of the task and still managing, somehow, to look noble.
Another stage in the annual cycle of urban-gull life occurs during early-to-mid summer, when burly, brown-feathered fledglings flop down from the nest then find they don’t have the strength or technique to get airborne again. They waddle gormlessly along the pavement and among parked cars, or in back yards, calling plaintively for their parents with that non-stop whistle-squeak, sometimes for days on end. One of the parents is usually in range to monitor and protect from above, anxiously shrieking and swooping into action whenever human or prowling pet is in the vicinity.
It seems bizarre, or miraculous, that they don’t get picked off by cats or foxes at night. On tarmac throughout town, however, feathery squished remains testify to a high attrition rate on the roads.
There’s a seagull moseying here and there along the platform at Central Station, scavenging for crumbs and crisps. Passengers hurrying for trains pay the bird no heed, and occasionally it breaks into an undignified speed-waddle to avoid been trodden on. When it’s time to fly, it does so with an air of insouciance. A two-step jog and a bounce, the great wings open and lazily push the air, and it’s up-up-and-away.
The Ilfracombe sausage incident: one of those little events that goes down in family folklore. We were seated harbourside at the seaside town in North Devon one summer afternoon, unwrapping our chips and enjoying the comings and goings of boats and people. Several seagulls posed unthreateningly on the railings a little way in front of us. Then – it all happened so fast, Officer – one of them was in the air and in our faces, wings at full stretch, and with its beak it plucked the shiny sausage from my little lad’s fingers just as he was about to take his first bite. Shrieks all round – mostly from other seagulls but also from us – and I lashed out with my foot as the now furiously flapping gull manoeuvred itself backwards and upwards. Mayhem and commotion as every other seagull along the waterfront converged on the ascending sausage-snatcher. A desperate airborne pursuit, up and down over the water, with fragments of sausage passing from thieving beak to thieving beak before the main body of the thing dropped into the harbour.
A lone gull stands on the cambered roof of the train at the opposite platform, facing forward. As the train begins to roll the bird free-rides for the first few seconds then unfolds its wings and glides into the air without any run-up. This looks like a game it could play all day.
Late summer, I watched a plump youngster land on a chimney pot and immediately begin whistle-squeaking into the face of its parent on the adjacent pot, bobbing its head in supplication . The parent, who looked leaner by comparison, did nothing to acknowledge the arrival of its darling. Instead, it stared into space for a few seconds then took to the air, flapping phlegmatically across the street to take up position on a different chimney pot.
Okay, “flapping phlegmatically” might be anthropomorphic projection, but something about the parent’s manner as the prodigal returned, said: … hey kid I’m busy here/was having a break/am trying to read my newspaper. It might also have conveyed: You’re a big bird now – go and find your own scraps. I saw the same scene repeated on other rooves several more times over the next couple of weeks.
A small nursery flock, chaperoned by one or two adults, is looping around the rooftops and gardens up and down the street, seemingly for the heck of it. The young ones are whistle-squeaking as always, the adults interjecting an ululation from time to time. A gang of pals learning wing-craft together. They will flock like this until their feathers turn white and they themselves are old enough to breed.
In early autumn this year I became a person of interest to this street’s seagulls. It seems I caught their attention because of spending too much time nosing into their business – even though it was only a matter of pausing in my daily walk to look up and admire them. The circling nursery of squeaking and skrarking youths and adults took to occasionally following me down the road and around the first two or three corners. I kept looking up to see if they were still there, not sure if I was being hounded as a nuisance or just being mocked. I couldn’t resist skrarking back at them. Sometimes I took a footpath under the cover of trees, but when I emerged at the other end there they were again, tracking me. Or was that a separate group of seagulls, tipped off by the first lot that there was fun to be had harassing the irksome mammal in the brown fleece? Had an APB gone out across the seagull neighbourhood? Were they messing with my head? If I’ve learned anything about seagulls, I wouldn’t put it past them.
Later on my way back, if they happened to identify me a couple of streets from home, they would shepherd me all the way to the front door and circle noisily over the house for a while before gliding off in search of other entertainment.
The leaves have yellowed now and are falling, and the seagulls are less prominent in sight and sound. The whistle-squeak, when you hear it, is maturing into a passable seagull shriek. I hope the young ones will scavenge enough scraps – maybe even an unbattered fish or two – to make it through to spring.