From the March 4, 1983 Reflections of That Man Friday column by William A. Caldwell:
Depending on the distance intervening between you the beholder and it the beheld, the herring gull (Larus argentatus smithsonianus) is either (1) a thing of beauty and a joy forever or (2) loathesome, a dweeb, a nerd, yucky. Wheeling and glinting high on a blue morning sky over a great city or an inland valley, the gull signifies that you’re near the sea, nearer and nearer to the end of the journey, almost home. Wheeling around your head when you emerge from the kitchen lugging a day’s worth of garbage to the can, the wretched gull signifies that you’re in danger of having an ear lopped off.
In a bird-worshipping community like this, a pretty efficient way of alienating people and being alone is to confess a disrelish for any kind of poultry on the hoof. People are not pleased to be told that anything of theirs is imperfect. They choose to think the gull is something of ours. They are wrong. We are its, and it is a property, a possession, of ours only in the way the common cold is.
One of this week’s fine mornings, the folks who live at our house decided it was time to clean out the freezer in the workroom. They are aware that food securely packaged and deep-frozen will keep quite awhile; gosh, in Siberia they’re mining the permafrost for prime ribs of mammoth, or so goes the legend; but sooner or later the labels on the tubs and cartons pale away and we can’t remember whether the contents of those mysterious foil-wrapped packages would be canard aux oranges or a hibernating mouse. There is a time for putting foodstuffs up. There is a time for throwing them away.
Don’t call it waste. We feed to the birds such grub as we can’t identify. There have been no complaints, and we haven’t yet lost a bird.
It will be necessary to delay the action for a moment of meditation on the proposition that all animal behavior is inborn, instinctive, coded into the genes — that birds, for instance, can’t learn. can’t reason, don’t remember, communicate only such primitive information as “ouch” or “get off my turf” or “let’s do it.” The gulls have a language and use it.
I carried my first armful of rejects out across the lawn to the apron of the little pier and set the victuals down frosted block by clock, and the dozen gulls at the far end of the pier stirred and clucked but actually did nothing of much intellectual interest until I turned away to go for more. Then an elderly gull, walking with a soldierly limp, bent over the chunks, which were beginning to melt, and started pecking at the remains of an ancient chowder.
The eldest gull thereupon emitted a harsh cry that can’t be translated into English letters — it’s a three-toned cry, a little like the ga-hoo-ga of the klaxon automobile horn, only shriller and perhaps an octave higher — but might be approximated as to meaning. That cry means, “Chow, guys; soup’s on; come and get it!”
Suddenly the air over and around the pier was pulsing with beating five-foot wingspreads, all the gulls were ga-hoo-ga-ing the mess call, more gulls were converging from across the water and away in the town dumps, and the grub was gone.
By the time I staggered across the lawn to the feeding station with a second load of delicatessen, the gulls were back at their reserved places at the end of the pier, squabbling peaceably over who ranked whom in the pecking order.
When they saw me coming, however, all of them, perhaps as many as a hundred, exploded into the air, a twisting column of squawks and feathers, and notified every animal in the hemisphere that tiffin was being served.
I dropped the dainties and hobbled off. This is not a suspense story. You have noticed that in any story written in the first person the author survives. So that was the end of the day’s action.
But when, next day, I went down to the pier to see whether the birds had left any bones that might, shattering, choke or lacerate the innards of a scavenging dog or cat, the gulls saw me coming and spiraled up and around me, yelling their raucous signature tones and fetching fellow mendicants from miles around. Look, I don’t think I am pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge; better people than I have been observing the behavior of the gulls longer and more systematically than this — gosh, tomorrow I’ll find studies on the subject in two quarterly magazines, six hardcover books, and a whole stack of monographs. But I have not myself known that your average gull can learn in a matter of hours or a day to equate the appearance of one creaky old gent wearing a red stocking cap with the presentation of food. No human of comparable age could make that connection.
Now the gulls have made the connection between me the food bearer and the house. Over the years they’ve huddled at their end of the pier. Now, knowing what they’ve learned about cause and effect, they’ve moved up onto the lawn and stand there rank on rank, facing into the wind and dreaming of a brand-new handout. When I wave my arms at the window they flounder off into space, but some return, and stand waiting, waiting. For whom, they know. It is a suspense story.
Compiled by Alison Mead