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Birds in the Calendar

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<SPAN name="Page_91" id="Page_91">[91]</SPAN></span></p> <h2>THE SEAGULL</h2> <p class="cap"><span class="dcap">So</span> glorious is the flight of the seagull that it tempts us to fling aside the dry-as-dust theories of mechanism of flexed wings, coefficient of air resistance, and all the abracadabra of the mathematical biologist, and just to give thanks for a sight so inspiring as that of gulls ringing high in the eye of the wind over hissing combers that break on sloping beaches or around jagged rocks. These birds are one with the sea, knowing no fear of that protean monster which, since earth's beginning, has always, with its unfathomable mystery, its insatiable cruelty, its tremendous strength, been a source of terror to the land animals that dwell in sight of it. Yet the gulls sit on the curling rollers as much at their ease as swimmers in a pond, and give an impression of unconscious courage very remarkable in creatures that seem so frail. Hunger may drive them inland, or instincts equally irresistible at the breeding season, but never the worst gale that lashes the sea to fury, for they dread it in its hour<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_92" id="Page_92">[92]</SPAN></span> of rage as little as on still summer nights when, in their hundreds, they fly off the land to roost on the water outside the headlands.</p> <p>It is curious that there should be no mention of them in the sacred writings. We read of quails coming in from the sea, likewise of "four great beasts," but of seafowl never a word, though one sees them in abundance on the coast near Jaffa, and the Hebrew writers might have been expected to weave them into the rich fabrics of their poetic imagery as they did the pelican, the eagle and other birds less familiar. Although seagulls have of late years been increasingly in evidence beside the bridges of London, they are still, to the majority of folk living far inland, symbolical of the August holiday at the coast, and their splendid flight and raucous cries are among the most enduring memories of that yearly escape from the smoke of cities.</p> <p>The voice of gulls can with difficulty be regarded as musical, yet those of us who live the year round by the sea find their plaintive mewing as nicely tuned to that wild environment as the amorous gurgling of nightingales to moonlit woods in May. Their voice<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_93" id="Page_93">[93]</SPAN></span> may have no great range, but at any rate it is not lacking in variety, suggesting to the playful imagination laughter, tears, and other human moods to which they are in all probability strangers. The curious similarity between the note of a seagull and the whining of a cat bereft of her kittens is very striking, and was on one occasion the cause of my being taken in by one of these birds in a deep and beautiful backwater of the Sea of Marmora, beside which I spent one pleasant summer. In this particular gulf, at the head of which stands the ancient town of Ismidt, gulls, though plentiful in the open sea, are rarely in evidence, being replaced by herons and pelicans. I had not therefore set eyes on a seagull for many weeks, when early one morning I heard, from the farther side of a wooded headland, a new note suggestive of a wild cat or possibly a lynx. My Greek servant tried in his patois to explain the unseen owner of the mysterious voice, but it was only when a small gull suddenly came paddling round the corner that I realised my mistake.</p> <p>In addition to being at home on the seashore,<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_94" id="Page_94">[94]</SPAN></span> and particularly in estuaries and where the coast is rocky, gulls are a familiar sight in the wake of steamers at the beginning and ending of the voyage, as well as following the plough and nesting in the vicinity of inland meres and marshes. The black-headed kind is peculiarly given to bringing up its family far from the sea, just as the salmon ascends our rivers for the same purpose. It is not perhaps a very loving parent, seeing that the mortality among young gulls, many of which show signs of rough treatment by their elders, is unusually great. On most lakes rich in fish these birds have long established themselves, and they were, I remember, as familiar at Geneva and Neuch&acirc;tel as along the shores of Lake Tahoe in the Californian Sierras, itself two hundred miles from the Pacific and more than a mile above sea-level. Gulls also follow the plough in hordes, not always to the complete satisfaction of the farmer, who is, not unreasonably, sceptical when told that they seek wireworms only and have no taste for grain. Unfortunately the ordinary scarecrow has no terror for them, and I recollect, in the neighbourhood<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_95" id="Page_95">[95]</SPAN></span> of Maryport, seeing an immense number of gulls turning up the soil in close proximity to several crows that, dangling from gibbets, effectually kept all black marauders away.</p> <p>Young gulls are, to the careless eye, apt to look larger than their parents, an illusion possibly due to the optical effect of their dappled plumage, and few people unfamiliar with these birds in their succeeding moults readily believe that the dark birds are younger than the white. Down in little Cornish harbours I have sometimes watched these young birds turned to good account by their lazy elders, who call them to the feast whenever the ebbing tide uncovers a heap of dead pilchards lying in three or four feet of water, and then pounce on them the moment they come to the surface with their booty. The fact is that gulls are not expert divers. The cormorant and puffin and guillemot can vanish at the flash of a gun, reappearing far from where they were last seen, and can pursue and catch some of the swiftest fishes under water. Some gulls, however, are able to plunge farther below the surface than others, and the little kittiwake is perhaps the<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_96" id="Page_96">[96]</SPAN></span> most expert diver of them all, though in no sense at home under water like the shag. I have often, when at anchor ten or fifteen miles from the land, and attended by the usual convoy of seabirds that invariably gather round fishing-boats, amused myself by throwing scraps of fish to them and watching the gulls do their best to plunge below the surface when some coveted morsel was going down into the depths, and now and again a little Roman-nose puffin would dive headlong and snatch the prize from under the gulls' eyes. Most of the birds were fearless enough; only an occasional "saddleback"&mdash;the greater black-backed gull of the text-books&mdash;knowing the hand of man to be against it for its raids on game and poultry, would keep at a respectful distance.</p> <p>Considered economically, the smaller gulls at any rate have more friends than enemies, and they owe most of the latter not so much to their appetites, which set more store by offal and carrion than by anything of greater value, as to their exceedingly dirty habits. These unclean fowl are in fact anything but welcome in harbours given over in summer<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_97" id="Page_97">[97]</SPAN></span> to smart yachting craft; and I remember how at Avalon, the port of Santa Catalina Island (Cal.), various devices were employed to prevent them alighting. Boats at their moorings were festooned with strips of bunting, which apparently had the requisite effect, and the railings of the club were protected by a formidable armour of nails. On the credit side of their account with ourselves, seagulls are admittedly assiduous scavengers, and their services in keeping little tidal harbours clear of decaying fish which, if left to accumulate, would speedily breed a pestilence, cannot well be overrated. The fishermen, though they rarely molest them, do not always refer to the birds with the gratitude that might be expected, yet they are still further in their debt, being often apprised by their movement of the whereabouts of mackerel and pilchard shoals, and, in thick weather, getting many a friendly warning of the whereabouts of outlying rocks from the hoarse cries of the gulls that have their haunts on these menaces to inshore navigation.</p> <p>Seagulls are not commonly made pets of, the nearest approach to such adoption being<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_98" id="Page_98">[98]</SPAN></span> an occasional pinioned individual enjoying qualified liberty in a backyard. Their want of popularity is easily understood, since they lack the music of the canary and the mimicry of parrots. That they are, however, capable of appreciating kindness has been demonstrated by many anecdotes. The Rev. H. A. Macpherson used to tell a story of how a young gull, found with a broken wing by the children of some Milovaig crofters, was nursed back to health by them until it eventually flew away. Not long after it had gone, one of the children was lost on the hillside, and the gull, flying overhead, recognised one of its old playmates and hovered so as to attract the attention of the child. Then, on being called, the bird settled and roosted on the ground beside him. An even more remarkable story is told of a gull taken from the nest, on the coast of county Cork, and brought up by hand until, in the following spring, it flew away in the company of some others of its kind that passed over the garden in which it had its liberty. The bird's owner reasonably concluded that he had seen the last of his prot&eacute;g&eacute;e, and great was his astonishment<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_99" id="Page_99">[99]</SPAN></span> when, in the first October gale, not only did the visitor return, tapping at the dining-room window for admission, as it had always done, but actually brought with it a young gull, and the two paid him a visit every autumn for a number of years.</p> <p>On either side of the gulls, and closely associated with them in habits and in structure, is a group of birds equally characteristic of the open coast, the skuas and terns. The skuas, darker and more courageous birds, are familiar to those who spend their August holiday sea-fishing near the Land's End, where, particularly on days when the east wind brings the gannets and porpoises close inshore, the great skua may be seen at its favourite game of swooping on the gulls and making them disgorge or drop their launce or pilchard, which the bird usually retrieves before it reaches the water. This act of piracy has earned for the skua its West Country sobriquet of "Jack Harry," and against so fierce an onslaught even the largest gull, though actually of heavier build than its tyrant, has no chance and seldom indeed seems to offer the feeblest resistance. These skuas rob their<span class='pagenum'><SPAN name="Page_100" id="Page_100">[100]</SPAN></span> neighbours in every latitude; and even in the Antarctic one kind, closely related to our own, makes havoc among the penguins, an episode described by the late Dr. Wilson, one of the heroes of the ill-fated Scott expedition.</p> <p>Far more pleasing to the eye are the graceful little terns, or "sea-swallows," fairylike creatures with red legs and bill, long pointed wings and deeply forked tail, which skim the surface of the sea or hawk over the shallows of trout streams in search of dragonflies or small fish. It is not a very rare experience for the trout-fisherman to hook a swallow which may happen to dash by at the moment of casting; but a much more unusual occurrence was that of a tern, on a well-known pool of the Spey, actually mistaking a salmon-fly for a small fish and swooping on it, only to get firmly hooked by the bill. Fortunately for the too venturesome tern the fisherman was a lover of birds, and he managed with some difficulty to reel it in gently, after which it was released none the worse for its mistake.</p> <hr /> <div class="bk3">SEPTEMBER<br /> BIRDS IN THE CORN</div> <hr /><p><span class='pagenum'>
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