The Gulls Have Spoken
by Flynn Washburne, June 14, 2017
I only ever deliberately killed another animal once in my life. It was in the mid-80s and I was working on a farm/nursery in Durango, Colorado, where the mistress of the concern poisoned several semi-domesticated barn cats I'd befriended and tossed a litter of newborn kittens into the La Plata River, in defense of the songbirds she fed and adored. Incensed, I took up a shot gun, went around the back of the house where the birds congregated and blasted away until a score or so of little feathered corpses littered the back deck and lawn.
It did not make me feel better. Quite the contrary, in fact, and while it did accomplish the intended purpose of making my boss feel the same pain and bereavement I felt at the loss of the cats, I was immediately weighted with the remorse that I've been atoning for ever since by being especially nice to the avian community in general.
The incident got me thinking about the human-engineered species hierarchy imposed upon the animal kingdom, wherein animals are sentenced to die, allowed to live, or sequestered away from everyone depending upon their beauty, utility, flavor, and ability to render humans into solid waste.
Mankind in general, egoistically perceiving the totality of evolution as a pyramid atop which he is astride as the pinnacle and capstone of an epic saga about the glory of his species, loves to impart human characteristics upon other animals based on their appearance and behavior, concomitantly passing judgment as a result. Cows? Hmm, slow, stupid, delicious — you, we'll eat. Rats, you're ugly and sneaky, you must die. Cats, you can help get rid of the rats, you can stay. Chickens, you don't fly so good and you're kind of stupid looking; line up over there with the cows. Dogs, you know how to follow orders, you're cool. Swans, nice necks. You're in. Pigs, it was a judgment call but ultimately the deliciousness of bacon outweighed your intelligence and friendliness. Naked mole rats, eww! Stay the fuck underground. Pandas, OMG! So cute, we 'll worship you! Join the koalas and penguins.
And so on, each species relegated to a role as food, companion, friend, enemy, clothing, symbol, or object of adoration depending upon the fickle whims and requirements of Man.
Widely reported and repeated is the fact humans and chimpanzees share 98% of their DNA, in an effort to underscore Man's kinship with the rest of the animal kingdom and convince skeptics about evolution. Much more telling is that we share significant amounts of DNA with barnacles, pond scum, the herpes virus, and every other living thing on the planet, indisputably pointing to a common ancestor. Since species always evolve toward greater complexity, we can safely surmise that the one common ancestor of everything that ever lived, our billions-of-greats grandsire, was a fundamentally rudimentary unit of energy transfer. That infinitesimal spark began the inexorable journey toward our current condition of biodiversity via an infinitely complex system of branching. Mankind just happens to be on the branch whose favorable (?) mutations led to a grossly overdeveloped cortex, and with it the ability and desire to make judgments and assign characteristics to its brethren.
We are not “better than” other animals, and humans are not a goal or end-product . Evolution does not have a goal, except insofar as the immediate one of copying the gene. This should be enough to convince people that our desires should not automatically supersede those of other species, especially when those desires differ so widely. Survival vs survival, I get that.
In nature, somebody has to die. That's the way it's set up. But survival vs fashion, or diversion, or construction, or revulsion — that seems unfair, but Man is pretty firmly ensconced in the boss’s chair and, barring a concerted coup from the rest of the animals or an extinction event, that's where he'll stay.
On that long-ago farm, I was just as guilty of making that kind of shortsighted value judgment. I considered the lives of the birds less valuable than those of the cats, and indeed insignificant enough to be used as pawns in a vendetta in which they had no interest or involvement. Had the birds gathered en masse and murdered the cats themselves, my shotgunning them would have made some sense, but as it was they were blameless victims of my rage and sorrow, and so to this day I will not pass up an opportunity to do something nice for a bird.
The bird family as a whole is subject to their own ranking system, based primarily on spurious anthropomorphic suppositions. Owls are solemn and wise, eagles and hawks are noble, jays are obnoxious assholes, gulls and pigeons are vermin, corvids are malicious and sly, and songbirds are graded according to color. In other words, your drab sparrows, tits and chickadees are essentially worthless, while a vividly variegated finch is as precious as a jewel.
Not to me. All our feathered friends are just that, my friends, from the wrinkliest buzzard to the mangiest pigeon and every one in between. I've seen eagles eat out of dumpsters, owls attack garden statuary, and sparrows bravely defend their nests from marauding cats. Every bird out there is just trying to make his way in the world as best he can with the tools provided him in the environment he finds himself, including that most reviled of avians, the gull. Just because when humans co-opted his coastal environment he elected to stay and scold, vex, harass, and pilfer from them until the end of time rather than relocate or go extinct like an obedient animal would, we brand them nuisance or worse instead of embracing them as valued members of the bio community. It's funny how the most tenacious strivers and survivors of the animal world, the ones who actually exhibit qualities valued in humans, who will adapt and proliferate anywhere and in the face of determined and concerted opposition by humans, are deemed pests and freely slaughtered, while the ones who are too stupid, slow, or otherwise unfit are the targets of massive, well-funded rescue campaigns.
I'm not saying don't save the manatees and tigers; let's just keep things in perspective. And I know tigers are neither slow nor stupid, and while manatees are slow and definitely look stupid, both species and many more are 100% victims of human encroachment and slaughter and not necessarily unfit, but I'm just making a point.
Anyway, gulls. It used to be my habit, when living in Albion, to stop at the beach in Little River to get high and look at the ocean for awhile on my way back from Fort Bragg. One gray afternoon I rolled into the lot with a load of groceries and dope, parked, cranked up some Big Drill Car, and loaded my pipe.
As I puffed happily away, a large, handsome seagull drifted over, activated his landing protocols, and alit on my hood. He was a serious-looking fellow and paced the width of the windshield a couple of times, then stopped on the driver's side and looked intently at me, tipping his head this way and that to get both eyes in on the inspection. He stamped his foot — talon? — and I could almost hear his little gull thoughts. We know what you did 25 years ago last summer. Now make with the groceries, punk.
"Yes, sir," I said meekly, and tossed a handful of Fritos out onto the hood. The bird squawked happily before falling to, and if you know anything at all about gull behavior, you know what happened next. Seemingly (or, I guess, literally — though in coastal Mendocino “gray” might be more appropriate) out of the blue, 50 or 60 of my new friend’s closest pals and business associates descended en masse on Chez Camry, all famished and loudly demanding to see a menu. I started throwing out slices of bread and when the loaf was depleted, donuts. The reviews were uniformly positive as the gulls seemed to have a positively Homeric (Simpson) appreciation for the sweet, sweet, pastry. There was much flapping, milling about, and squabbling going on, and if my car wasn' t already done in Mottled Scratch'n'Ding, I might've feared for its finish.
Once I'd served the birds everything I had that I thought they could safely digest, I politely informed them that the kitchen was closed and I'd have to be going now. They ignored me, pacing and ruffling their feathers, now and then pecking angrily on the windshield. Dammit! They knew I was holding out.
In the bottom of my grocery bag were ten tins of sardines in mustard sauce, which I'd purchased at the behest of a neighbor who liked to share meals with her cat. "Sorry, Elaine," I muttered to myself. "Tonight you and Buckles fend for yourself. The gulls have spoken."
I popped open can after can of the sardines and dumped them onto an old AVA I was using as a floormat. The oily, fishy scent carried out the cracked window and sent the birds into a state of frenzied, rapturous anticipation. I leaned on the horn for a few moments, startling them enough so they'd hover briefly and give me time to get the door open and toss out the ’dines .
Mission accomplished and the entire flock now comprising a roiling, raucous knot five feet to the left of me, I backed out of the lot and headed Albionward, thinking of myself as something of a patron saint.
It wasn 't long before things turned less Franciscan and more Hitchcockian. I heard a great cacophonous babble rising in pitch and intensity behind me and looked in the rearview to see a massive cloud of determined, hungry gulls on my tail. I goosed my rig for all she was worth but the good folks at Toyota back in 1991 had not anticipated the need to escape a flock of angry maritime scavengers, focusing instead on producing solid, reliable commuter vehicles.
I was no match for the birds and they were about to descend on the car as we reached the Ridge Road. I barely slowed, drifting into the turn and downshifting as I started up the hill, engine screaming, gulls squawking, causing the layabouts in front of the store to gape in amazement as we passed.
Ahead and above me I saw a number of fast-moving brown missiles coming toward us. I locked up the binders, skidded to a stop at the side of the road and got out of the car . It was a gang of ospreys coming out of the clouds with murder in their eyes, and those gulls wanted no part of it. They turned tail and headed back the way they came, indignantly protesting but acceding to the raptors' wishes. I'm guessing it was some kind of turf thing and the gulls had overstepped.
I was a little worried that the ospreys were going to expect a feeding for saving me, but they disappeared after routing the interlopers. "Thank you!" I called to them, waving as they disappeared into the sunset.
The weird thing is, the next time I parked at Little River, I was immediately besieged by a huge crowd of gulls, and I'm pretty sure I recognized most of them. They remembered my car! Hell, sometimes I don't remember what I'm driving. I had a newfound respect for the wit and resourcefulness of these creatures.
On the whole, I'd say the birds and I are square now, though of course I'll continue doing them kindnesses as opportunities present. Maybe not of the magnitude of the Great Little River Sardine Frenzy, but I'll always be good for a piece of my sandwich.