"When it seemed that nothing could stay the devastation, great flocks of gulls appeared, filling the air with their white wings and plaintive cries, and settled down upon the half-ruined fields. All day long they gorged themselves, and when full, disgorged and feasted again, the white gulls upon the black crickets, hosts of heaven and hell contending, until the pests were vanquished and the people were saved." Orson F. Whitney, June 6th 1848.
Over a century later, the California gull, was selected as the state bird of Utah and a gull monument placed on Temple Square in SLC.
My first serious encounter with this bird occurred in the mudflats of the Ogden Bay Bird Refuge. On a date with my 3 young children and a lovely lady whom I later betrothed, we walked several hundred yards to a small island consisting of an outcrop of mica schist. As we approached, a white cloud of screaming gulls arose. We soon discovered the island to be covered with nests of young and eggs. Mesmerized by this remarkable display of turmoil and alarm, the gulls went on the attack by releasing offal from both anterior and posterior ports. The gulls won the day with our rapid retreat.
I’ve had many gull experiences since: being attacked by mew gulls in Alaska, who also attacked bald eagles that strayed into their territories; witnessing Franklin gulls returning to Utah landfills with a pink glow from gorging on brine shrimp; watching with amazement as western gulls opening clams and mussels by shattering them on rocks while backpacking on the Washington coast.
I’ve come to respect North America’s 28 species of gulls as graceful, intelligent, and skillful seabirds. The following gull trivia may win a few more admirers.
· Gulls are monogamous creatures that mate for life and rarely divorce. As parents, they are attentive and caring, both involved in incubating the eggs as well as feeding and protecting the chicks until fledged. They also teach their young creative methods of hunting, showing the intelligent ability to pass skills to others.
· They are one of the few species of seabirds that can survive drinking salt water, enabling them to venture far out to sea in search of food when necessary. This is made possible by a special pair of glands just above the eyes that flush the salt from their system out through their nostrils.
· They are expert fliers, having mastered control of wind and thermals, sharp directional changes, climbs and dives.
· They have developed many clever ways of stealing the catch of other seabirds using their flying skills to pluck fish from birds in flight, or fascinating maneuvers to pester them until they drop the food which the gull will catch before it hits the water.
So how is our state bird predicted to weather a shifting climate? Unfortunately not well, losing 98% of its summer range and 72% of winter range by 2080. Until then, I will continue to marvel at the great flocks following the plow turning up fresh earth and the hidden banquet they relish.
Sound credit - Kevin Colver