On the 19th September I was sat in the Melbourne Cricket Ground awaiting the start of a much anticipated Australian Rules Football (AFL) match, with the winner progressing to the Grand Final – The Holy Grail of AFL. The clash was between Geelong, the surprise losers in last year’s grand final and Collingwood. Winning would give Geelong the chance of sporting “redemption” after last year and Collingwood its first chance of the “flag” for a number of years. I was barracking for Geelong, not because I support them, but on a point of principal – they were playing Collingwood! The crowd grew strangely silent as the start of the game approached and as it started and the ball was bounced down the crowd roared, the air filled with conversations about …….. seagulls!
While I have to concede that some of the crowd had a point and that there were a lot of birds about, I could not see a single seagull – all I could see were gulls, Silver Gulls to be precise. I can’t help it, but seagulls don’t exist outside the pages of children’s books. They are gulls. Just gulls. No need to add the sea bit – and anyway most people would see them elsewhere anyway. You may as well call them tipgulls, or inthemiddleoftowngulls or hangingaroundthechipshopgulls, as seagulls.
Equally interesting was that the gulls really looked wonderful that night. Under the bright glare of the nightlights they shone as only a Silver Gull should. Bright specks of pure silver in the overarching sky, mobile stars outshining those on the field. The fact that they seem to occupying a number of key positions in the Collingwood forward line was not endearing them to the crowd, but I loved it. Here in the heart of sport crazed Melbourne, during one of the most anticipated football matches in a long while, nature had intervened to put on a spontaneous show that had more theatre, more speed and more pure energy than the planned event. And most people were ignoring it. In fact in the days that followed moves were made to hire Wedge Tailed Eagles to scare away the gulls on Grand Final day lest they distract from the spectacle. Well each to their own, but I think the AFL would have to change many of the club nick-names if it wants to exclude nature entirely. Needless to say the bid to remove the gulls failed, and on Grand Final day there they were, bold as ever, still occupying the forward line.
As you may have guessed I like Gulls. They are a kind of environmental constant throughout the world. If you tried I suppose you could avoid them if you wanted to, with trips to the Amazon or the middle of the Sahara unlikely to yield much in the way of gull watching opportunities, but that’s only a guess. Where ever I have been gulls have been there waiting for me. Laughing in America, offering me Herring in the England and nuggets of pure Silver in Australia. I deeply resented the Black-Headed ones, as most spotty teenagers do, but I forgave them eventually.
As a child I did not live that far from the sea, but you can’t if you live in UK, and the gulls that flocked behind tractors, squabbled on the local tip and (OK so I admit it) walked on the beach and the sea shore were always there. Initially mysterious with varying sizes, shapes and plumages, they all conform to the same basic pattern. Grey, black and silver plumage, bills and legs of yellow, red green, eyes with a wild stare and a tendency the squabble at the slightest opportunity. In the end they do give up their secrets, but the sight of massed gulls is good enough without the need to name each and every one, even though I do try! They were there in my childhood and they are here now, constant, reliable and always worth a scan on the off chance of something different being hidden in the flock.
I lived in a 20 story student accommodation block for two years, and the sight of the upper surface of gulls in flight always captivated me. The swoops and acrobatics of the Black – Headed Gulls that were necessary to catch bread crusts thrown from windows was remarkable to see. Watching from above was an added bonus. As darkness fell and the crust dropped into the street lights gloom, you could not help but wonder “how do they do that?” At times I began to believe the Jonathon Livingstone Seagull (why, oh why, oh why did they have to do that!) was simply a documentary about the gulls below my window.
In many places gulls must represent one of the last opportunities people have to see large wild animals around where they live. Rather than scare them off we should look at them for what they are; remarkable, often attractive and full of strange and different behaviors. Gulls have been with us for much of our history I think we would miss them more than they we miss us if either should disappear.