Seagull City

(From the upcoming book Photographic Heart)

My hometown has always sustained an unusually large population of seagulls, even by “normal” seaside town standards. The birds here are just larger, feistier and more active. Twice as big as your average chicken, they are the true owners of this city: constantly patrolling every rocky or sandy corner of the bay, and always curious about what humans have been up to. They know the city better than anyone, like the back of their wing, flying at drone height above the coastal highways, beaches and landmarks, scanning everything with their eagle-eye vision.

They are in fact in complete control of a few strategic points, where they have solidified their dominance over the years. These have been unconditionally ceded to them, recognised by humans as “no-go zones”.

First, there is Seagull Island. On stormy winter days, the island’s rocks change colour as thousands of birds find shelter on them while waiting for the storm to pass. It may appear like it has snowed on the island, but this is simply the result of thousands of bird bodies “storm-watching”. Aside from a shelter, the island is of crucial strategic importance to the birds. Located at the entrance of the bay leading to the port, it is the perfect observation post to monitor the large fishing fleets that go in and out of the city. These are an important food source for them, providing throw-away scraps that won’t sell in the fish market. The seagulls have long ago adjusted their daily schedule to that of the fishing boats, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they actually recognise each and every boat from a distance, and have memorised how good a catch each one normally brings in. If they feel like a city meal that consists of something a little more exotic brought from far away, they will follow the boats towards the port. Otherwise, the “stay home” option is to just go fishing locally along the coast, where large shawls of fish tend to gather ever since the city decided to divert its sewage to a biological waste processing plant, 30 years ago. There is life everywhere along the shore, and beach-goers are usually confronted with crowds of seagulls who have already chosen particular sections of the beach for themselves. The seagulls tend to grab lunch there, launching surprise attacks from the air on the schools of young fish that stay very close to the water’s edge. The seagulls stay there all day, and this becomes another human “no go” zone, even on days when the beaches are crowded with humans. Once full, the birds tend to become a bit lazy and start just walking up and down the beach, staring at the sea as they digest. The young ones are a lot more playful, grooming themselves and doing a lot of people-watching and seagull-watching. Sometimes it seems that they have learned this from the humans, enjoying the purely recreational side of the beach. They seem to feel completely at home with humans all around them, and sometimes it seems seagull and human schedules are somewhat synchronised.

The other famous no-go area is right beside the seaside restaurant, on the main inner city beach. The birds come here not for the restaurant, but to socialise in the seaside park next door, where there are specially designed perches that look towards the ocean. The perches are actually nothing but the railing across the edge of the footpath, but the seagulls are convinced that this was made specifically for them. It’s just too perfect to ignore, and a better solution to the street lamps which are way too tall and too antisocial, as only one bird can fit on top of one at a time. On the railing you can often find as many as fifty of them sitting in a row, pretending that they are all looking at the ocean, although it is very clear that they are probably checking each other out for a potential mate. Luckily for them, this is yet another place humans choose to avoid. The layer of bird crap on the railing means that you can’t rest your elbows on it and take in that nice ocean view, and all of us have found this out by mistake. Wherever seagulls have put their crap in this city, the message is: “this is mine”.

In the city’s historic centre, at the most touristy spot and where visitors tend to take selfies, there is a big telephone booth in the shape of a seagull, which I think has never actually been operational, at least i know I’ve never seen anyone ever make a call from it. But the city has kept it intact as an attraction, perhaps as a form of statue, a tribute to the seagulls’ dominance in the city, just a few blocks from other famous statues of “founding fathers” and important liberators and conquerers of the city that have come and gone over the ages. The seagulls after all are the city’s oldest and only constant population as it collected a mosaic of influences: Greek, Roman, Ottoman, Armenian, Jewish, Bulgarian, even Egyptian, Austrian and French. The birds have more than earned their right to have their own sculpture, even if it comes in the form of a disused pay phone.

I’ve never seen this pay phone anywhere else in the world actually, but it is positioned quite appropriately next to where the ferries depart for the nearby island, the next destination in the seagull landmark list. A completely different breed of seagulls tend to gather here, the narcissistic, more athletic types who are willing to follow the ferry through its one-hour journey just so that they can be seen later on Instagram videos catching a piece of toast in the air, mid-flight. The gruesome one-hour journey is probably enough to burn the calories ingested, this time being a 100% carb meal consisting of biscuits, cheese sticks, potato chips and all kinds of processed “artisan” baked goods obtained in the ship’s canteen downstairs. As the ferry picks up the pace, a cloud of seagulls rises behind it as if it’s the crowded start of the New York Marathon. Families with children gather on the uppermost deck, armed with bags of goodies. The humans work in pairs, one in charge of the camera and one throwing the bread. A good thrower knows to throw the bread vertically as high as possible, taking into account the ship’s own velocity and therefore allowing the bird enough time to lock onto its target. Others like to make it hard for the birds, making them dive spectacularly to catch the bread before it falls on the ocean and becomes a soggy, salty mess. Others yet attempt to hand feed, with varying levels of success of earning the bird’s trust. Either way the bird’s reflexes are so good that you will rarely see one miss a target. Whichever way you throw the bread they will catch it, and this does deserve an instagram moment. The birds are a free Cirque du Soleil production that is well-known to both the locals and the tourists.

It is unclear to me whether the birds are actually hungry or whether this is a form of play for them. They tend to get very competitive with each other and there is a clear pecking order of “champion” bread catchers on one hand, and younger, much less confident contestants who are looking for their first experience of grabbing an oregano galette in the air that will bring them a little bit more respect back in the tribe. Like I said, it’s quite a competitive sport.

Then there are the outsiders, like with any society. I will never forget the day when I was visited by a seagull with an unfortunate defect on its beak. While it’s lower “lip” was completely normal, It’s upper one was severely deformed, tilted horizontally at an almost 90 degree angle. It seemed to have grown that way. It was a grotesque deformity, leaving the bird’s mouth looking like a bird version of Edward Scissorhands, and prey to other seagulls who are well known for their vicious attacks on members that look different. But aside from its deformity the bird looked perfectly healthy, obviously still able to catch fish with its strange, misshapen beak. It came and stood right in front of me on the beach, simply staring at me in a way that felt very unusual, almost human-like. I felt as if the bird had noticed my discomfort, but still wanted me to look at it, to accept it for its defect. It wasn’t asking for food or trying to come closer, it was simply staring, making me self-aware of how we all choose to look away from images that don’t fit the perfect vision we have constructed in our minds about what our reality is and what it should look like. We reject misshapen carrots at the supermarket, misshapen beaks, misshapen people, when what is actually misshapen is our narrow view of what things “should” look like.

Just as the seagulls had an outcast, so did the humans. He was in fact the sole human inhabitant of Seagull Island, a man that had set up a permanent tent among the rocks. The city immediately created stories about him, all of which had the common theme of “something not quite right” with him: a homeless gypsy? A mentally impaired man? A dangerous fugitive? The more he avoided contact with the outside world that lay literally a couple of hundred meters away, the more the stories grew. It was only decades later when a journalist from a local TV station interviewed him in his boat, that we found out that he was just an eccentric, hippie-type guy who had chosen a simple life away from people and closer to the seagulls. He was probably the closest that the city had ever had in the way of an ambassador to the seagulls, and vice-versa. A human who was able to see things from the seagulls’ point of view, and perhaps bridge the two communities. Once he died, the island became exclusively seagull territory again. And as the seagull numbers continue to rise, the city’s human population has shrunk to levels lower than 35 years ago

George is a chemist, molecular biologist and food scientist. You can follow him on Twitter @99blackbaloons , join his mailing list, or read his books

9 thoughts on “Seagull City

  1. These seagulls are so fortunate to have you as their biographer! You have observed them for many hours not for just a few minutes like many of us. Perhaps such a lack of sustained attention also accounts for our inability to truly appreciate the special characteristics of most of our fellow animals. So thanks for a more
    realistic picture!

    Much enjoy your poetry and am looking forward to more!

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