Thursday, January 27, 2011


Gulls in Riverside Park

 I love gulls. 

It's not that surprising that I would have found them exotic at one point.  My first memory of them is from a trip we took to Ireland and the UK when I was seven; the sight and sound of them is tied up with some  exciting places.  Not just the ocean, which would have been good enough, but castles and weird foods and funny accents and all sorts of fairy tale wonderment. 
Riverside Park, same day.

Terns in Morro Bay, CA
 You'd think though, after more than twenty years in coastal cities that I'd be over them by now, especially when I've been hearing them called flying rats for much of that time.  In fact I've often felt a little guilty for appreciating gulls, or at least like it was something best kept to myself.  I have a similar fondness --and accompanying guilt-- for pigeons.  On that same trip we (naturally) went to Trafalgar Square.  Back then the place was absolutely swamped with pigeons, probably because there was a vigorous cottage industry of birdseed sellers all over the place.  Mom and Dad bought some for us to toss.  At one point a girl not much older than me was standing in place, head and out-stretched arms covered in birds, a huge smile on her face.  I wanted to do that so bad, but was held back by one thing.  Before our trip we'd had to get some vaccinations.  One of them consisted of many little needles at once, pricking out a shape about the size of a dime.  I had been proud of the fact that I didn't cry and I was equally proud of the impressive scab that formed on it.  At Trafalgar Square though, the idea of those little claws accidentally scraping off my scab before it had healed was unnerving.  I kept the seeds and birds away from my body... and regretted it for days afterwards.  I campaigned hard to go back for another chance, but our schedule never allowed for that.  When we went back in '76, the birdseed sellers were still there, but I was no longer interested in having birds all over me.  Feeding them was still fun though.  Mary and I went to Trafalgar this past May, and it will probably surprise no one that the seed sellers and the birds are long gone.  There are in fact signs telling you not to feed them, but I'm not sure I even saw any.  The place was spotless and sparkling.  The whole city is getting ready for the Olympics, of course, and some very impressive public toilets have been added to that area.  Even without health concerns, they do not want bird shit all over everything. 

I have a vague sense that the pigeon's reputation for spreading disease is not entirely unearned.  I believe they are especially hazardous to people with HIV.  I don't mean to make light of potential health hazards.  I don't feed them, unlike some people in my neighborhood.  But I still love them.  I love their iridescent heads, their coral eyes, and their little cooing sounds (I'm specifically talking about Rock Doves, which are one of the breeds lumped under 'pigeon'). I love the patterns they make in the sky, especially at sunrise or sunset, when their silver under-wings catch the light like mirrors.  There's a big flock of them that hang out by my subway stop, near the grocery store.  The shows they put on in the late afternoon have helped me decompress more than once.
Swans in Galway Bay
The birds I really fell in love with back in '72 though, were swans.  They charmed me in all the ways they've charmed people for centuries.  They were the things I would draw obsessively for the next few years.  (I never spent any time drawing gulls up close, but no seascape was complete without a few M shapes flying in the sky.)  

Swans seemed magical.  I've never heard them referred to as rats with wings.  They're so big and graceful, and that white plumage looks so clean.  Maybe they don't intrude on human spaces quite as aggressively.  But I bet it's mostly that long neck and sparkling feathers that gets them a free pass. 

Galway Bay
  I've actually heard a lot of animals equated with rats.  Crows, starlings, sparrows, basically any plentiful bird  (especially if it's noisy) gets the label.  Squirrels are rats with fluffy tails.  In the Methow Valley gardeners are forced to surround their plots with ten foot fences to have any hope of eating some of their own produce, and drivers are divided into two categories --those who have hit a deer, and those who have not yet hit a deer (I narrowly missed one; scared me out of a year's growth).  So, deer are, understandably, rats with hooves. 
Riverside by the Hudson

I found myself thinking about all this last week as I walked by the Hudson.  The flock of Canada Geese in residence here had, for some reason, tripled in size.  You may recall it was a Canada Goose at LaGuardia airport that brought down that airplane about two years ago.  The plane landed in the river not too far from here.  Some of these Geese might even have witnessed it.  Maybe they learned a valuable lesson.   

Evening Commute
 I have no specific memory of  my first Canada Goose.  Perhaps the event just wasn't that charged.  The sound of them honking overhead as they flew by in big V's was always a stirring part of my Autumn, but I don't remember seeing them on the ground much. 

My first experience dealing with them in big numbers was in Seattle.  One encountered them  by Lake Washington.  I thought they were beautiful, but was less enamoured of the guano-covered lawns one had to navigate to get to the beach.  Naturally they've been designated rats with wings too.  (I read something recently that claims the population exploded in the 60s, when hunters began breeding them so as to have more things to shoot at.  If this is true, I have a lot less sympathy for the complaints that there are too many of them.)
Perhaps simply because of their greater numbers, I found their behavior intriguing.    For a while they paddled back and forth in the water, seemingly with great purpose but no destination.  Then they began flying up onto the shore, again giving the impression of maintaining a schedule ('and team Bravo...mooooove out!') or observing some kind of protocol.  Eventually they were all on land, looking for any space where the snow had been blown off the grass.  I love the sumi-ink look of their heads, the  hues of walnut in their wings, and the way their white breasts seem to glow against the snow.  Seeing hundreds of them all together, with their funny bow-legged strut, taking turns standing guard, I realized that I was feeling a sense of bounty.  I felt wealthy, for lack of a better word.  In addition to whatever romantic memories they trigger, the sheer number of them, whether gulls, pigeons, swans, or geese appeals to me.  I feel the same thing looking at a field of violets.  I love single violets, but how much better is it to have them by the hundreds?  Part of what makes these animals rats is their ubiquity, of course.  So, instead of denigrating them for being ratlike, I began to think maybe I should give rats another look-in. 

I do not care for rats especially.  I know they spread disease.  They don't quite inspire the revulsion in me that they do in others, but I'd rather they stayed out of sight and out of my space.  Their pink naked tails do gross me out.  I doubt that's going to change.  But maybe they deserve some credit for, I don't know, tenacity maybe?  Neil Gaiman does something fun with them in his book Neverwhere.  In the complicated society of London Below, rats are an aristocratic race that humans are proud to serve. It's mostly played for comedy of course (the main character, coming from our world of London Above, never learns their language, and takes his sweet time getting over his disgust) but it still made me think warm, fuzzy thoughts about rats for a brief time. 

Tramping down this path started to make me rethink all sorts of things.  I love bees, butterflies, praying mantises, lady bugs, crickets and fireflies, but the sight of just one lumbering, prehistoric water bug in my apartment inspires such an atavistic rage, I can't rest until I've reduced the thing to its component molecules.  It's more than just "I don't want that in my house."  Crickets and lady bugs have ended up in my house and I still find them charming.  No rage is triggered,  there's no lunging for a shoe to pound them into oblivion. 

I kept wandering down this line of reasoning.  I don't eat a lot of meat any longer (poulty and seafood only), but the thought of eating cow or pig doesn't disgust me.  I've never tried horse, or deer, but those thoughts don't disgust me either.  So why is the thought of eating dog or cat horrifying?  I ate rabbit in the past quite happily, so it isn't just the pet thing.  Besides, I've actually gotten to know some cows, pigs and chickens, and they often have rather nice personalities too.

I wouldn't say I have any earthshaking conclusions to draw here.  I'm a product of my culture as much as the next person.  But I felt like I'd made some kind of discovery that day.  Perhaps it's as simple as noticing the mundane, truly seeing--and appreciating-- something I see every day.  Gulls could be rats with wings, or they could be the magical evocation of castles by the sea they were when I was seven.  Canada Geese could be enormous poop machines or they could be a whisper of wilderness in my urban landscape.  Is this just taking a glass-half-full approach?  Works for me.  


Jess said...

It was actually a bunch of geese that took down the plane. Clearly, another conspiracy!

I am too often in awe of nature to label so many creatures "rats with" whatever. Even the mess made by Canada Geese didn't diminish my joy at seeing groups of them land near my old office, as they often did. Coworkers would be confused by my enjoying the sight of them, but they're coworkers, so who cares? Just go back to orking cows and leave me out of it. Pervs.

I'm in your camp when it comes to gulls. I've even been blessed with a gull bombing on more than one occasion while visiting the beach (when you grow up on an island, you spend a lot of time at the beach... and these disgusting little moments do happen at times). But I never held it against the gulls. I didn't see any malice in it.

The gulls make me think of the beach, the sea and romantic settings.

By the way, I like your photo of the terns. They don't have the same bad reputation as gulls. Perhaps it's their non-trash-diving ways. Or maybe it's just that they have a catchy phrase in their honor. You know, "one good tern deserves another."

Yes, thank you, folks! I'll be here all week! Remember to tip your waiters generously! ;)

Okay, I think I've worn out my welcome. But before I go... when are we going to see you, sir? It's been too long! What, 20 years? (I may be rounding up a bit!) Let's get together soon!

Birdie said...

I love watching birds, but I'm not a birdwatcher. I couldn't tell you the names of most birds, but I find them beautiful nonetheless.

Gulls are fun unless they poop on you. Me—twice, on the Gulf and Pacific shores. That's one really good reason not to feed them.

I think the Canada Geese have multiplied because they found food in our fertilized lawns that provide sustenance year-round. (I don't see them as rats so much as cows.) They were once exclusively migratory, but now huge flocks are non-migratory, leaving a pound of poop per day per bird on manicured lawns. New businesses have arisen to eradicate goose populations. Even laws have changed, allowing people to "disturb" nests of non-migratory geese in order to limit their population. I remember a time when it was a big deal to see a Canada Goose. Today? *Yawn*

tornwordo said...

I love the starlings who are so hardy, they never have to migrate south. Apparently on the west side of town there is a murder of crows numbering over 10000 birds. I love crows, but 10000? Might be overkill. I never saw a Canada goose until I moved to Canada.

Patrick said...

Jess: Ah, a flock of them taking down a plane makes more sense. I had thought only one got caught in the engine, which certainly would do a lot of damage. Groan at the Tern joke. My friend Sarah said "to everything, tern tern tern, there is a season..." Oy.
I've even heard that being shit on by a bird is supposed to be good luck. Not sure what culture that came from, but I've tried to keep it in mind when it's happened to me.

It has been forever since we've seen one another, hasn't it! Must remedy that. I also want to be sure to give Bernice some extra smooches. We'll tawk.

Birdie: I'm much like you, a bird watcher but not a bird namer most of the time. And I guess part of the idea I was circling around in this post is the funny way certain birds started out as exotic and rare, and now have become commonplace in my life. In some ways my appreciation for them is nostalgic, but in other ways they've changed categories. Now I love Canada Geese the way I love sparrows and chickadees.

It's kind of funny how the Canada Geese don't bother to migrate any longer, but still feel the need to practice for it. I'll frequently see them flying east or west in big honking Vs. The instinct is there somehow, but not the follow-through.

Bill and I were at a park in the fall that apparently employs trained dogs to disrupt the Canada Geese. There were signs reassuring us not to panic if we saw dogs chasing geese. I'm not sure how far the 'disrupting' goes, though.

Torn: wow, 10000 crows would be formidible. and LOUD. I love them too, but that would be pretty overwhelming. Those birds are SMART too.

I wonder if you'd see Canada Geese more in some of your old haunts, though I suspect they probably don't spend a lot of time in California. The ones I see here often spend the coldest days floating on the Hudson. That's part of why I like them, they're one animal that seems to like the cold even more than me.