Creatures Great & Small

Gulls are among the most under-appreciated birds in all avi-dom. When most people see one, they give it only a passing glance at best. If they remark the bird at all, it’s merely with an offhand, “Oh there goes another seagull.”

But gulls are well worth a second look. Depending on the species, their eyes can be warm chocolate brown or sunshine gold. Their legs and feet are bright pink or lemon yellow. In breeding plumage, their bellies are spanking white, their backs a natty gray, their wingtips gray or black. Many sport ruby-red dots on the undersides of their bills, a target for babies to tap to remind the parents to give them food.

Although we see gulls in the city in winter, they are not urban creatures at heart. Most fly north to breed, where they seek out rocky haystacks far from predators. I have seen them in their northern reaches, standing guard over their precious eggs in the nooks of the sheltering cliffs, or drifting like living snowflakes above the pewter gray ocean as far as the eye can see.

The waters and the land where these birds live are a remnant Eden that invokes in me the very image of creation on the third divine day, when nothing existed but land and sea:

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of water called He Seas; and God saw that it was good.

Gulls visit this primeval world every year, but we do not see them there, and hence we know nothing of their real lives. And knowing nothing, we disdain them. We disdain them because down here where they dwell amongst us humans, they seem to prefer garbage as their plat du jour. You can see this at the Fill the morning after a football Saturday. When the Winnebagos still have all their blinds pulled against the piercing rays of the rising sun (piercing even when the dawn is cloudy, if the inhabitants of the vans tailgated too exuberantly the night before), the gulls are out there in the parking lot searching every discarded burger bag for a little scrap.

The gulls arrive while the light is too dim to see more than the vaguest shapes of the Golden Arches printed on crumpled wrappers. They have learned they must get to the parking lot early before an army of orange-vested street cleaners and garbage trucks disappears all the football leftovers, edible or otherwise.

I think they must like this part of their lives. They certainly seem to relish their garbagial finds. But they are not what they eat. Or at least not completely. They are also the pearl and pewter flyers of the Far North, whose eerie cries fill the dawn like the Creator Himself calling on the waters to separate them-selves from the land.