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EVERY fall when the waves begin to heat heavily J along the sea-shore, a white-winged fleet sails into the rivers and bays to winter. When most of the other flocks have gone to the southland, this feathered fleet skims about the wharf-lined water front. These are the Gulls, and they add life to the landscape as they float and sail about, just as the white-sailed boats of the summer skim about the waters of the inland harbors.
The gull comes not for pleasure alone, he comes because it is easier to find a living about the city than on the open sea. He pays for his existence in the amount of garbage he picks up. He skirmishes the river for dead fish, putrid flesh, and waste stuff of every kind. If his food supply runs low on the river, he hunts overland. If the gulls are fed along the water front, they become very tame, and return regularly every day for their dinner.
The gulls are quick to learn that they are protected about the harbors, and they become quite fearless in their search for food. They will often come almost within arm's reach, yet these same birds are likely to be very wild when they are not in the harbor limits, where the strict regulations protect them. Only a few years ago the gulls were allowed to be killed without limit, but now they are protected under the different state game laws. Whenever a gull is shot and falls to the water the other gulls crowd about either through curiosity or sympathy, and for several moments they will hover over a fallen comrade. Hunters took advantage of this trait, and often large numbers of gulls were slaughtered wantonly or for their plumage, which was used for millinery purposes.
One summer we visited the native haunts of the gulls and climbed about their homes on some of the rock islands off the Pacific coast. We found them even more picturesque here, as they flashed their white wings against the rough brown rock, than they are about the bays and rivers. We climbed the rocky slopes to the crevices where these birds had carried a few handfuls of grass for nests. We saw them building on almost every suitable table ledge. But the largest number of nests were scattered about the green slopes on the top of the rock. Here each gull scratched out a little hollow and lined it with dry grasses. Two or three eggs of greenish hue, blotched with brown, in each nest, were so closely matched with the green and dry grasses that we had to watch at every step to keep from treading on them.
we found the top of the rock fairly alive with mottled-gray sea-gull
chicks. A pair of these chaps are about as interesting as anything
I've seen in the bird line. They show little fear, but there is
generally a look of surprise in their eyes when you stoop to pick
them up. These young gulls retain their mottled dress until after
the first year. The snow-white breast and pearl-gray coat are only
worn by the more mature birds. The brownish-looking fellows perched
along the docks of the city are not a different species; they are
About the rock where the gulls lived we had a splendid opportunity to study the home life of these birds. We soon discovered that the greatest anxiety of the parents seemed to be to keep their children crouching low in the nest, where they thought they would escape observation, and would not run away and get lost among so many neighbors. I saw one young gull start to run off through the grass, but he hadn't gone two yards before the mother dove at him with a blow that sent him rolling. He got up dazed and started off in a new direction, but she rapped him again on the head till he was glad to crouch down and lie hidden. It seemed also to be the duty of the parents to beat their neighbors' children if they didn't stay at home, for each mother recognized her own chicks largely by location.
He who would study the art of a๋rial navigation, would do well to watch the gull's flight. I have often looked at these birds as they hang in the air, or move straight up in the teeth of the wind in the rear of one of the ocean steamboats. They poise, resting apparently motionless on outstretched wing. It is a difficult feat. A small bird cannot do it. A sparrow hawk can do it only by the rapid beating of his wings. The gull seems to hang perfectly still, yet there is never an instant when the wings and tail are not constantly adjusted to meet the different air currents, just as in shooting the rapids in a canoe the paddle must be adjusted every moment to meet the different eddies, currents, and whirlpools, which are never the same at two different instants. These gulls are complete masters of the air. A sail-boat can only tack against the wind. A gull, by the perfect adjustment of his body, without a single flap of the wings, makes rapid headway straight against the wind. I've seen one retain perfect poise and at the same time reach forward with his foot and scratch an ear.
The gulls are more common along the Pacific Coast than along the Atlantic. All through the West the gull is a versatile bird, for although he is born for the water, he seems to be as much at home hunting about the fields as on the ocean. In Utah the gulls that nest about the Great Salt Lake fly all through the surrounding country and visit the beet fields, where they catch crickets, grasshoppers, and cutworms. Mice are very plentiful in the alfalfa fields, and when the land is irrigated and the water drives these pests from their holes the gulls are always on hand and snap them up as soon as they appear. The gulls are sacred in Utah; they are of so much value to the farmers that they are protected in every way.
southern California and Oregon I have watched flocks of gulls leave
the ocean and rivers at daybreak every morning and sail inland for
miles, where they skirmish about the country and hunt a living for
themselves. I have watched a flock of them follow the plough all day
long, just as the blackbirds do, fighting at the farmer's heels for
angleworms. Others rummage daily about the pig-pens and gorge on the
offal that is thrown out from the slaughter-houses. But I have never
seen the gulls spend the night about these places. Toward evening
they begin to collect in bands and sail back to the ocean, where they
can bathe and sleep. If any bird is useful to man, the gull is
certainly of great economic importance as a scavenger; three of them
are equal to a buzzard, and ten equal to a pig.
In another way the gull shows his quickness to take advantage of opportunity. In southern California, where the gulls and pelicans feed together in the bays, the gull is a parasite, living on the labor of the pelican. Although heavy and clumsy in shape, the pelican is as expert as the kingfisher at diving. From a height of thirty or forty feet, he drops like a plummet into a school of small fish and rises to the surface with pouch filled with fish and water. As the diver stretches his neck and draws his bill straight up, the water runs out and the fish are left. The head is thrown back, and the whole catch is swallowed at one gulp. But the pelican does not fish for himself alone, for he is always followed by one or more thieving gulls.
One day, while standing on a wharf, I saw a brown pelican flapping along with a pair of gulls a few feet behind. A moment later the big bird spied a fish, for with a back stroke of his wing he turned to dive. He gathered speed as he went, and with wings partly closed and rigid he hit the water with a resounding splash. The lower mandible of his bill contracted and opened his pouch that held as much water as the weight of his body. He came to the surface and was in a helpless condition till the water ran out, and at this moment he was pounced upon by the swift-moving gulls, who snatched the fish and were away before the slow pelican could retaliate.
At another time I saw a band of a dozen pelicans following a school of fish. They rose from the surface, swung around till about twenty feet above, and two or three of them dropped into the water at a time. A bevy of twenty gulls were fluttering around to pounce upon every pelican that dove. The instant one disappeared and came up with fish he was surrounded by a bunch of gulls, each screaming to get a nose in the pelican's big fish bag.
We were interested one winter in studying the great flocks of gulls that live about San Francisco Bay. Every morning at eight o'clock the garbage is emptied at the long dock of the navy training station. The gulls about the neighborhood know this as an ordinary laborer knows the lunch hour. They flock around by the thousands. It looks as if some one had poked a stick into a hive of big feathered bees as the birds flutter about and fight for particles of food.
Protection has made these birds very tame. "Old Whitey" used to be known to every sailor on the Pensacola training-ship, and he showed up for meals as regularly as the bugle blew. He had his own perch on the bowsprit, and took bread or meat from the hand like any pet. There were always several others riding the anchor chain, waiting for scraps from the table. Many of the birds were very expert at catching morsels in the air, as they were often fed by the sailors. I have often seen them take a crust of bread in mid-air, rarely missing a catch.
minute a new food supply is found anywhere about the bay, the news
spreads in the gull world by wireless telegraph. A flock of half a
dozen gulls will increase to as many hundred in an hour or so. You
can't see just where they come from, but they come. When the
steam-dredger started to open the channel of the Oakland estuary a
whole flock of gulls sailed in and settled at the mouth of the long
pipe, which was belching forth a mixture of mud, water, rocks, and
clams. It was as bad as a crowd of a thousand noisy newsboys. Such a
shoving, clambering, flapping, grabbing! Every clam was gobbled up
the minute it struck ground.
I have often seen the western herring gull act in ways that speak well for his sagacity. On several occasions I watched him open clams and mussels. His bill is unfitted for crushing the hard shell. I saw one gull grasp a clam in his bill, rise to a height of thirty feet, and drop it to the hard sand and gravel below. He followed it up closely, but it didn't break. He repeated the same performance over fifteen times before he was successful.
THE GULL FAMILY
The Gull belongs to the family of long-winged swimmers. They are experts on the wing and they swim lightly on the water. The gulls are common and easily recognized along the sea-coasts. They live on fish and refuse matter picked up about the harbors.
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus): Male and female, alike; back, delicate pearl-gray; head, neck, under parts and tail are pure white. In winter, the head and neck are streaked with gray; bill, yellow with red spot near end of lower mandible. Length, about twenty-five inches. Found throughout North America; winters about the harbors and retires to the rocks off the coast and to inland lakes to breed. Nest is a hollow on the ground, lined with grass. Eggs, two or three, from olive-green to brown, irregularly streaked and dotted with dark brown and blackish.
Western Gull (Larus occidentalis): Same as above, except the coat is slightly darker in color. Found on the Pacific Coast.