SKIRMISH • Sunday morning, Clairemont Square Shopping Center parking lot. A lower-middle class, close-in suburb of San Diego, California. An asphalt expanse between Town Square Stadium 14 and Burlington Coat Factory. A few gulls perch on the edge of a roof. Fifteen more are scattered on the pavement. From one, from another, a plaintive cry, that squeaky swing-set sound, an alien despondency. The fifteen in tightening togetherness. Separate, too, and separating, mocking togetherness. Flocking in anti-flock. A club, every adult member identical, their grey-and-white plumage fixed. Otherwise, a few embrowned young. At first glance. Then, a sense that they are one. Their response—silence, a discontent, standing stock-still. Nobody speak, as if to say we are not one—gull, seagull, shorebird, vagrant, visitor, coastal fisher, scavenger—we possess individualities, alas, that no one can see.
I approach. Am met with indifference, then wariness. Mothball heads. Bright yellow beaks. Slate-grey mantles. Field vision whole, each sees my coming and a space to move to. I approach closer. Stick legs and rubbery feet pick-up, put-down, pick-up, put-down. Walk-away, hurry-away, walk-back. Uncertain, curious, gregarious. Lowing at me—me, the problem. Then one, flat-footed, ruffles its wings up and out, extends its neck, flattens its back. Its beak visors open, trumpeting rage, and (no exaggeration) the bird hair-balls a squawk.
Larus californicus (California). Larus delawarensis (ring-Billed). Larus occidentalis (Western). Distinct species, cagey individuals. And yet each, at least to me, all gull.
Most Sunday mornings during winter—that is, during gull season—Jack-in-the-Box bags and licorice wrappers have been pecked apart by these vultures of the asphalt range. And still the gulls wait, thinking (no, trained to think) there’ll be more food. And why not. The trash also rises every Sunday, here in the peopleless remains of this and countless other oil-stained lots, cars gone, movie-night adolescents history. Who cares how the food got here; food will not be wasted. Hear the hunger in their voices, the hunger of long-distant flights, hunger between seasons of breeding and migration. Nothing Hitchkockian in wanting to eat. Yet I notice gulls so often here and in off-handed array—bay, beach, dump, slough, flapping by overhead—until their sheer numbers say more than, We are here only to eat. Surely something greater than gorging themselves on coastal waste has evolved the desire to desire this heap we call southern California over some other heap?
In the lot, I identify one species, the Western gull, which nests on Mexico’s Islas de Los Coronados, fifteen miles off the Pacific coast, thirty minutes south of Tijuana. The Western is our lone resident gull, which, as one local birder told me, has solved the migration urge: “Why would anyone ever want to leave San Diego?” The others are vagrants, visitors, accidentals, a set of motorcycle Marlon Brandos come here to gawk and eat and fly over and postcard the beach. And here they keeping coming—in winter, increasingly more in summer, by the hundreds of thousands, twenty one species.
A moment later, the gulls and I reach a stand-off. Every step I take, each bird takes a step back. Okay. This is as close as we get. But intimacies are imaginable. Somewhere between the Western and the twenty other gull species, between our silly and spiritual depictions of them from beach logos to the ubiquitous “Free Bird,” between their ability to resist our encroachment on them and to encroach on us all they want—somewhere in-between is the gull, passing through and moving on, the apotheosis of elsewhere.
FLOCK • Why look at birds? Indeed, “Why look at animals?” the English writer John Berger asked in his provocative 1977 essay. Berger writes that we look because we long for an ancestral time when the secrets of life were “the secrets about animals as an intercession between man and his origin.” Animals were with us and not with us: “They belonged there and here.” But with leisure, with mechanization, with human occupation of nearly every earthly habitat, animals have been sundered from the wild, not only for food, but for pleasure, as pets, mascots, and zoo stars. That close to us they become Disneyfied, caricatures laden with anthropomorphism. Comic-strip Garfield is every spoiled cat in America, one of thirty seven million, most of whom receive Christmas presents. Such a lot drains spiritual power from the animal. The animal loses much of its species vitality, Berger says. The animal is fitted with one of our many one-dimensionalities, the puppy, the kitty. Super-softened in its new “innocence,” the animal is “emptied of experience and secrets.”
One result, Berger concludes, is that “animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance. . . . What we know about them is an index of our power, and thus an index of what separates us from them. The more we know, the further away they are.” In the end, animals captured and retained for study express their marginality, “an otherwise exclusively human attitude—indifference.”
Is Berger anti-scientific? Has he over-aligned himself with ancient spirit instead of modern actuality? Does examining animals in depth push their beings further and further from us? Do animals, in becoming dependent upon us, become less animalistic? Of course, they don’t need us to represent them, though many would argue they need us to represent their interests. Saving their beleaguered habitat surely carries the ancillary means that ensures our survival. And yet, faster than we can protect their environments, the gull is adapting to our habitat—surviving on the trash that engulfs us, in a sense, more cagily than we are. For us, whom the birds mimic, I wonder how much we are becoming them.
SCAVENGE • No one knows this adaptation better than Paul Lozano, who’s been working dumps for three decades and manages the Otay Landfill for Allied Waste. Congenial and relaxed, Lozano, who says he loves his job, in part, because his wife April is his secretary, has driven me out and stopped on one of the terraced roads, overlooking the day’s pile. Below three huge Caterpillar tractors are spreading and compacting the waste from local dump trucks. The Cats slip-slide over the grunge mound as though they’re maneuvering on basketballs. About fifty yards away is a spotter, who signals in-coming rigs where to go. He also watches for gulls. If he sees any approaching, he fires off a gun that shoots a bird-whistler into the air. The sound shocks them and, momentarily, keeps them from landing. Otherwise, Lozano says, they’ll land. “They’re sneaky.”
Years ago, he continues, thousands roosted here. “I remember driving a piece of equipment and the birds would be gliding next to me, outside, so close and so beautiful.” Where once the landfill bosses merely tolerated the gulls, today they manage them. “We don’t want them landing, eating the trash, getting sick, or taking diseased food out of here.” He says it’s a health concern. The company can’t be 100 percent sure of what people dump in the landfill—from coffee grounds to hypodermic needles. No one, he says, wants these gulls carting off plastic bags and dropping their contents in someone’s back yard. To the south we can see the Chula Vista Water Park, Coors Amphitheater (seating for 20,000), and new Levittowns rising on the far ridges.
The sound of the bird-whistler is like the squeal of air escaping a balloon’s neck. When the whistler is propelled by the hammer-punch of the gun, the rush up through the air bends the noise a bit, making a high-pitched, annoying, and soon-over whine. “We don’t want to hurt them,” Lozano says. “We just want them to move on.”
There’s probably a flock we can check out on the mesa above us. Often the gulls perch on the edges of the layer-cake hills where, Lozano says, “they’re thinking, ‘Maybe those guys won’t look at me and I’ll fly in and grab something real quick.’” Cool, windless days, like today, the gulls stick around; hot days they’ll get the gun’s message and head for the ocean, five miles off. Arriving, we find a hundred of them, a grey-and-white phalanx ready to play scaredy-gull. Lozano loads his gun. He aims it out the window, and the flock takes wing. They’re all coming at us. “Oops,” he says, “they saw me.” He fires. The alarmed flock turns chaotically, flaps hurriedly to gain altitude. Lozano loads and fires again. They startle, zig and zag. Once more he fires. Their array is jumbled now—messy not elegant. They’re unsure where they are. Soon they regroup and head south. Ten minutes later, they’re back.
Not only do the Cat operators cover the trash with mulch every night; Saturday evenings, they stretch huge tarps on top of it. Even so, the gulls land and peck, their nostrils ablaze with the stench of ripening waste. The plastic is so thick, Lozano says, “they never break through.” But they keep trying, “thinking they can.”
MEW • As children we daubed onto our idyllic seaside paintings the / flecks of gulls flying over. So powerfully mundane were those strokes that the commercial world employs them still. Realty signs with setting sun, waves, a whale’s tail, crown-rounded trees, and a single /’d gull. City banners in blue with egret, leaping dolphin, pier, surfboard, and three gulls, wings arching in soaring flight. Ye Olde Plank Inn driftwood sign with palm trees, A-frame, island, sailboat, and a bevy of gulls. A mosaic welcome sign for Imperial Beach on a grassy boulevard island: Most Southwesterly City in Continental U.S.—islands, sunset, sailboat, gulls by the dozen. Gulls illustrate walkway signs on Mission Beach Boulevard, directions to sand-covered paths hustled over by early morning surfers.
As though the gull had a wing in wanting all that!
How often a pair of gulls is depicted on cedar-shake coast cottages for honeymoon or tryst. How often a single gull appears as icon, left or leaving on its own. In its guises, this little Napoleon of lake and shore has chosen San Diego to beach and bay, just as San Diegans have. The gull drew us here, for the bird lives what it represents.
Yet, for some reason, San Diego’s gurus of tourism have not embraced the gull. Instead they’ve enthroned the cuter, captured species, Shamu the whale and Hua Mei the panda. The San Diego Zoo—always stumping for more visitors and more conservancy—uses panda and panda image to create chamber-of-commerce creatures. One birder tells me that pandas are adored because they seem childlike and huggable, whereas birds, even in cages, weigh nothing on the adorability scale. Birds stimulate more our sense of awe and abstraction, less our catch-and-keep enslavement.
Indeed, why look at the gull? Because the gull resists the bars and tanks of captivity. It is as much uncaged as uncageable. It has no cuddlesomeness and performs no tricks. And, like most non-natives and new arrivals to southern California, the gull is divided between this and other locales. It is defined by its having a homeland or a birthplace elsewhere, as though visitor and stranger were one and the same. To fly in and out of San Diego is to manifest several passages at once—migratory, homing, pelagic, shorebound. This mirrors America’s westerliness. “A literature of motion, not of place,” Wallace Stegner said, describing that which most characterizes western writers.
For me the coming-and-going motion of the gull represents much more than the wildness we’ve suppressed in the caged panda and the trained whale. The gull represents our conflict with staying in one place, something in America, and now spread across the globe, we don’t have to do if we don’t want to. The gull says traverse as much as you want. Not to hell with community and tradition but to make a kind of impermanence the community value. And, as apocalyptic as our homelessness may be, we, too, are migrating, as though the surface of the earth were a sky.
SPIRIT • Bird links heaven and earth. Once people knew gods to inhabit the bodies of birds, revealing the lightness of God. His burden is light, the Bible famously puns. The bird allowed the soul a place to escape to, to soar on, rising above this lot, leaving and yet returning, to remind us that the beyond may include a round-trip ticket. As soon as people knew that the soul needed a body with which to migrate, the soul could then, says one writer, take “its final flight to the nest where it is safe from the perils of transmigration.” So strong was the bird-force that the Egyptians recognized the phoenix, a bird that lived for 500 years, consumed itself in a fiery end, then rose from its ashes to live again.
This ancient animal knowledge still teaches. One birder told me of the spell of chasing birds by ear and eye, the senses enlivened, transfixed. “In a way, time stops,” she says. “You’re so focused into the moment. Your ears catch everything. You’re listening to all the different calls. You’re eliminating all the common calls to see if you can hear anything slightly unusual. Your eyes are looking for the slightest movement that might be a rare migrant warbler. It’s an exercise for the brain and the reflexes.” Though birders appreciate caged birds, she says, birding itself is the opposite. “The uplifting part of it is seeing birds in their natural habitat—free.”
MOLT • In California’s southeastern Imperial Valley, my partner Suzanna and I are driving south from Calpatria on California highway 111, and nearing Ramer Lake, the evening home to thousands of gulls and egrets and ibis. Above us, suddenly, there’s a flock of gulls. Paralleling the highway, the birds slow. Driving, I do the same. Desert highways always feel deserted, so it’s nothing to creep along at fifteen miles per hour, lean head out the window to watch one of many avian migrations. The sun is very low though still on the horizon and the birds’ flapping has picked up the tawny orange of the day’s last light. The color is radiant in what appears to be a near-unison flap of three dozen gulls. The sun reflects off their up-flap, which alternates with the dark of their down-flap. The effect is strobe-like, a film whose sprocket stalls and trips along with mechanical grace. A flickering, a shuttering of gull wings in and against a desert sundown sky. For a long moment the pattern holds. Then a shake, long enough for me to shout, “My God, look at that!” The flock veers away in tangled unison, flashing one final surge of orange.
Next morning, driving the long straight ditch-hugging roads of the Imperial Valley, looking for birds, we spot huge flocks of ibis and gulls and egrets, mixing, intermingling, in shifting phalanxes of motion over a newly irrigated field. A surfeit of water has pushed insects to the surface, where the birds feed. But the flocks are also roused to the air, where they intersect. There are geometric planes of motion that slice into other planes, one giant flank optically dancing with another, moire slicing moire. The front edge of the combined flocks turns back upon itself, entangling the totality. Other times, the flock seems to lose gravity and drop, swayback fall which, in turn, causes an undulation of the whole. To our eyes, a sudden seasickness, topsy-turveydom. All this observed from a soundless half-mile away.
DISPERSE • The sensuous aspect of birding is paralleled by the mystery of migration. At bottom, a food base controls migration: The bird follows the bugs or rodents, fish kills and spring thaws. In fact, four Ice Ages have pushed birds south. Birds also move because wherever they’ve evolved, so have their predators. (The gulls’ predators are few—great horned owls, peregrine falcons, and coyotes who get onto nesting grounds.) Thus, birds migrate for safety. But what impulse gets them to go and keeps them on target? Is it sight, a sense, a built-in magnetic homing mechanism, some kind of celestial navigation (star bright, star light), an avion gene?
There’s no simple explanation. Birds move at night. Birds get lost in fog. Birds are drawn by lights and sometimes strike radio towers. Birds move by light’s duration. As daylight lessens, birds move south. As days get longer, birds move north.
Fish and Wildlife Service personnel, in hopes of documenting the gulls’ use of migratory reserves, have been banding the legs of fledgling gulls in their breeding colonies for years. But finding those bands has proven nearly impossible. Gulls scatter from their nests in the northern United States and Canada to all parts of the Pacific coast. They travel in groups but they disperse constantly, join other groups, and head where the group is going. Very few gulls, experts say, are site-specific. They are not in one place one summer, one place one winter, then back in the same spot next season, as my parents used to go back and forth to gulf-coast Florida. Such adaptation to only one spot is dangerous to the gull: What if it gets lost and can’t find its summer or winter home? Frustrated searching will make it vulnerable to a predator. The gull re-inhabits the same spots each year but the gulls themselves are almost—if not all—different. Somehow, though, they know how to get to where they’ve never been.
THE URGE • Birds eat, birds reproduce. Those two facts encapsulate its physical life. Birds are also equipped with a special physicality, flight. Flight mediates eating and reproducing. At some point after four years of maturing, the urge to return to the nest springs to life. Young birds don’t go back to the breeding grounds until this hormonal reveille dutifully calls them. The urge is built-in. Birds feasting on an abundant food source in the wild will suddenly leave, the inner radar to breed awakened. Caged migratory birds go batty around nesting time. The Germans have a word for avian restlessness—Zugunruhe.
The urge takes adult gulls to safe places, established by traditions of colonies. For example, Islas de Los Coronados, preserved and protected by the Mexican government, is the Western gull’s breeding grounds. The island offers rocky cliffs on which thousands of gulls build nests and congregate. In colonies, they form a coalition called predator saturation. A predator can’t eat every bird. So, like generals, the “senior” birds inhabit the center of the colony, while the young—prey-bait—populate its fringes. Once the young are raised and get web-footed out of the nest, they will not return until they reach adulthood and feel the desire/necessity to breed.
All other gulls, besides the Western, who are born elsewhere and come here in droves, are called visitors. In fact, adults may spend as much as ten months a year in or near southern California while their nesting season in Utah, for instance, is a mere two. And yet this guest status dominates their existence: just visiting defines them.
ENTWINE • When parents stop feeding the gull chicks, the chicks, who quickly become juveniles, are on their own. They move on instinct, navigating as best they can. First year, they flock south in late summer and, arriving locally, cluster on bays, inland lakes, or the saline mistake, the Salton Sea, which lies between the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. These young ones are not necessarily lost. Rather, they’re wandering. And wandering is important to what defines them as a family. As the young gulls’ numbers steadily dwindle, they suffer, we might say, the pangs of a pre-urge sensibility. A two-year gull will sense some urge to nest and might wing northward at some point. But, without the clarion call to mate, they are easily pulled into another group. Adventure and not knowing go hand in hand. So they wander and, as they wander, they die. Separated. Sick. Lost at sea. Beaten by wind. Failing to molt. Preyed upon. Suddenly alone in a field beneath a hungry Peregrine Falcon. Unable to eat enough to fuel their wandering, they starve. After the gulls die, there exists for the adults an unerring course of cross-continental flyways and the incendiary urge to nest, a moving garden for which the young ones have given their lives and the older ones maintain.
Where we are going we know only by going. By getting lost. For gull as it is for human. Hovering by beaches, picking through dumps, grouping in fearful throngs, we have no choice but to look to the gull’s adaptability. Its flyways become us. We feel global; we value rootlessness; we cross borders; we are paving the earth, especially in southern California, to assure an assignation with the air. Why look at gulls, indeed.