Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/December 1897/Pacific Coast Gulls

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TO my right, to my left, overhead, everywhere, gulls, gulls, gulls! Big gray fellows standing on the wharf edge; white chaps, with black heads, flapping their long, black-tipped wings and making noises that could be likened only to creaky wheelbarrows! Such was my experience one day as I walked out on the pier at San Diego, California, to take the ferryboat across the bay to the charming Coronado peninsula.

Along the wharves and on the muddy flats left bare by the receding tide, the gulls were almost as plentiful and quite as tame as the English sparrows are on the North River piers at New York city. A half dozen sat on the bowsprit of a little coaster that was loading with freight and a few passengers for Los Angeles. Out in the harbor the United States revenue cutter Monterey lay at anchor, ready for coaling up on the morrow. On her spars and flying all about her were scores of gulls, eagerly watching for some scraps of food that might be thrown from the galley.

As our boat steamed across toward the opposite shore we were accompanied by quite an escort of these interesting birds, beautiful to look at in their almost entirely white coats. Watching the flight of one bird that came close alongside the boat, I was impressed with its easy, graceful movements; every time the long, strong wings made a stroke the bird's body seemed to rise as though breasting an invisible wave, the gull all the while turning its head from side to side as if looking for something. I thought of that strange belief, prevalent in certain localities, that gulls are the disembodied spirits of those who have lost friend or relative by drowning at sea. This superstition has been versified by Mr. A. J. Burdick, and the poem is worth quoting in its entirety:


"Soul of bereaved one, troubled and tossed,
Searching the sea for the one that was lost;
Skimming the air or riding the wave,
Seeking forever that precious one's grave;
Bird of the sea, is it true, is it true,
That the soul of some mourning one lives within you?

"Whom art thou seeking, some brother or son
Who sank to his rest ere his voyage was done?
Or was it a husband, or lover so brave
Who found an unmarked and untended grave?
Bird of the sea, is it true, is it true,
That the sea holds the one who is dearest to you?

"Bird of the sea, when the dismal winds wail,
And the breast of the ocean is swept by the gale,
When the demons of storm in their fierce anger rave,
And you sink 'neath their wrath to a watery grave,
Bird of the sea, is it true, is it true,
That the loved and the lost you find waiting for you?"

To "those who go down to the sea in ships" it is most interesting to watch the antics of the flock of gulls that follows a vessel, hour after hour, on the PSM V52 D226 Herring gull larus argentatus.jpgHerring Gull (Larus argentatus). watch for scraps of food that may be thrown into the sea. The birds are sharp-eyed and wise, and not to be deceived by anything short of real crackers. A traveler once tried to cheat the gulls by tossing out bits of orange-peel and cardboard, but the birds paid no attention whatever until a cracker was thrown to them, when immediately a wild rush was made and the cracker seized before it touched the water.

It has been thought by some that the gulls which follow a ship all day return to the nearest land at night, and another flock appears the next morning. Only recently an experiment was tried that disproves this theory, and I take the liberty of quoting in part from the account given in the Scientific American:

"On a late trip of one of the steamers plying between Portland and San Francisco the question came up among the passengers as to

PSM V52 D227 Kittiwakes.jpg


whether the gulls which appeared around the ship each morning were the same birds as had been with the ship on the day previous. To test the matter, a line and fishhook were procured, and with a bait of salt pork the fishing for a sea gull was commenced.

"The first cast of the line was successful, a big gray bird swooping down on the bait. He was hauled aboard and found to be uninjured, the hook having caught in one of the glands of the beak, from which it was readily loosened. After detaching the hook a strip of red flannel was brought and carefully tied around the gull's left leg by one of the seamen of the steamer, the bird being then turned loose. Circling for a moment in the air, the gull started toward the distant blue streak which denoted the coast line, and it was generally allowed that each day brought a new contingent of gulls to follow the steamer and pick up the waste scraps from the table; but on coming on deck after breakfast the next morning there was the flannel-bedecked gull to be seen, the most clamorous of all the birds. To test the gull's reasoning power, if it had any, the same line and bait was drifted astern, the gull caught the day before being one of the first to strike for it."

During my stay at Coronado Beach I remember one delightful afternoon spent watching the birds as I lay stretched at full length on the warm sands. Far out over the waves I saw, more than once—

"A flock of sea birds darken into specks;
Then whiten as they wheel with sunlit wings,
Winking and wavering against the sky."

At the water's edge a score or more of long-billed curlews ran about, picking up crabs and shellfish cast up by the tide. A few gulls mingled with the curlews and watched for opportunities to steal the dainties they snatched from the waves. Some distance out from shore three great brown pelicans new back and forth—

"On solemn wings that wave but seldom while."

They were fishing, and at intervals one would dive with a terrific splash into the ocean after its finny prey. Through my field glass I could see the huge bird come to the surface, and with great effort mount into the air, beset on either side by those "pirates of the deep," the skua gulls, whose principal occupation is stealing from pelicans and gulls the prey they capture. Ornithologically speaking, these skuas are not true gulls, though in looks and habits there is a family resemblance. Some one has aptly called them "the hawks of the sea." They are fierce, overbearing robbers, like some of the land birds of prey.

One day on the beach, a short distance above the Coronado Hotel, I watched some Chinese fishermen casting their large net into the ocean, in the same primitive manner, doubtless, as their ancestors had done for centuries. It was not the Chinamen who particularly attracted my attention, but rather a large flock of gulls that suddenly assembled as soon as the fishermen began to haul in the net. The birds evidently knew what was coming and circled about low over our heads. I had joined the fishers and was helping to pull on the rope. At last we dragged the seine high and dry on the beach, and found a goodly number of fish in the mass of seaweed—flounders and perch, as well as a lot of "shiners" and other fish too small to be marketable. The "small fry" were tossed oceanward, but were eagerly seized upon, almost before they reached the water, by the hungry gulls. When the men had finished the work of sorting out the big fish and moved away from the seaweed pile, which still contained dozens of little fish, the twoscore impatient gulls descended with loud cries of joy, and in less time than it takes to tell it every "shiner" had disappeared.

Gulls nest in colonies, generally on the ground along sandy beaches; also on the rocky ledges by the ocean. Large numbers nest on the Santa Catalina Islands and other rocky islands off the coast of California. Their eggs are gathered and sold as food in the markets of San Francisco. I remember how horrified I was when 1 first heard this. It is to be hoped that such practices may cease, for if persisted in year after year the gulls and other sea birds will soon be as scarce as are terns on the coast of New Jersey and herons and pelicans on the Florida islands.

The most numerous of the gulls along the Pacific coast was the western gull (Larus occidentalis), a pure white bird with a slaty mantle. The young of this species have a dusty gray plumage. I saw many Heermann's gulls (Larus heermanni) at San Diego—slaty, blackish birds with a pure white mantle and smaller than the western gull. The young are of a pure slate color. A number of other

PSM V52 D229 Western gulls larus ocidentalis and californicus.jpg

Western Gulls.
Larus occidentalis.Larus californicus.

species were seen frequently along the coast; the glaucous-wing gull (Larus glaucus), a large white bird with pale pearly mantle; the ring-billed gull (L. delawarensis), smaller, white, with pale mantle and black tips to its wings; the California gull (L. californicus), almost the size of the western gull, with a paler mantle.

When one thinks of a gull, it is always in connection with the seacoast, but it does not follow that you can only study the gulls beside the ocean. The American herring gull (Larus smithsonianus), an interesting member of the family, is frequently found hundreds of miles inland. It is a most useful bird to the farmers in Utah. I saw large flocks in the fields near Salt Lake City. They will follow the plow, just as the robins and blackbirds do in the East, picking up great numbers of injurious insects. I am glad to say that the people of Utah appreciate the practical value of these birds, and stringent laws have been passed for their protection.

To the ordinary observer a gull would seem to be of little service to mankind, and to be looked upon only as an aesthetic addition to a marine landscape; this is not the gull's only use, as I have just proved. The gull, as well as every other bird, has a place to fill in the economy of Nature, and, as we learn more and more of the good work the birds are constantly doing for us, we will, it is to be hoped, afford them the protection they deserve.