A baby Western gull, about three weeks old, fights mom for food. For more pictures, visit TideLines.org/Sydney. Comments and questions? Please forward to SydneyGoldenSeal@gmail.com. PHOTO BY ALAN VERNON
What’s white, gray, and black with pink pins? A Western gull, the quintessential gull.
I’ve had the best time watching a devoted gull couple raise their three squeaking offspring. Talk about demanding and noisy: I’m sure I wasn’t like that when I was a puppy. It all started when I heard some bleating in my quiet beach neighborhood. I looked up to see one, no two, no three fuzzy heads peeking over their nest in a chimney. Each was wearing a downy gray sweater patterned with black splotches.
One parent kept watch atop the ledge of a nearby chimney while the other was off food shopping. When the missing parent swooped in with the comestibles, the other flitted off for fishing duty. I know the adult brought food even though it carried no recyclable bag. All I could see was the parent’s upturned backside as it bent over the chimney ledge; all I could hear was the sound of silence from the pipsqueaks.
Speaking of feeding and gulls, did you know that the field of animal behavioral study (ethology) began because of gulls? In the first study on the subject, scientists discovered why the gull’s bill has an orange spot. The chicks peck the spot, which cues the parent to heave-ho predigested fish paste into the tiny, gaping maws. (I must give a shout-out here to a canine forefather who also participated in groundbreaking behavior studies. I salivate just mentioning the Pavlovian response.)
The babies grew bigger as the weeks, um, flew by. The parents continued their changing-of-the-guard routine, each bellowing arrival to the nest with a buglelike call. Bigger chicks mean more fishing trips. One afternoon, I was privy to the most amazing sight, which revealed the gull’s secret food stash. Upon return to the roof, the adult paced while repeatedly bowing deeply and then straightening. Up and down, up and down. It reminded me of when I eat something I wish I hadn’t. Still, I’ve never barfed up a whole fish. Impressive! Even more so was how the gull didn’t choke with such a big fish in its craw.
Anyway, after poking the undigested mackerel several times with its beak, the gull swallowed it, puked it up, then swallowed it again. Just as I was thinking I can relate, the gull winged it to the chimney and brought that fish up yet again (looking worse for wear with each upchuck), this time as an offering to the delighted squeakers. Guess they didn’t need predigesting at this point.
Meanwhile, the chicks were sprouting feathers in between the fluff. I’m glad I didn’t have to spend all day with them, because their new hobby, continuously picking at the fuzzy sweater, would’ve driven me nuts. And their hide-and-seek routine was very stress-inducing. The first time only two heads popped up over the chimney, I was in a panic for the third. Sibling rivalry is not only alive in the dog world but in the bird world, too. Apparently, the first two chicks hatch the same day; the third is the underdog. It’s born a day or two later, weighs less, gets less food and grows more slowly (if it survives, that is).
Gratefully, the chick I feared for was instead the daredevil, breaching the chimney walls for the perils of the slanted roof. If you’ve ever seen humans trying to walk while wearing flippers, you can picture my fuzzy and feathered friend clumsily high-stepping it on the tilted, uneven roof with webbed feet that look 10 sizes too big. Awkward. Soon, all three chicks wandered the roof decked out in nearly fledged coats of mottled-brown feathers interspersed with a few fuzzy accents.
Shortly thereafter, they transformed the roof into a runway for flight practice. The gull-lets tried running while flapping their wings in readiness for take-off, even though they barely got airborne before landing. The chicks also trooped together to stand perilously close to the roof’s lip while gazing at their future.
Besides the Goodyear blimp, I think that a gull is one of the coolest birds on the planet. If I were a gull, I, too, would be an airborne pirate. I’d bust out my clarion cry while raiding barbecue parties and trashcans and cruise the waterways in search of fish. During downtime, I’d practice wingovers under the clouds. The roof sure looks empty without my little chickadees.