Sunday morning, Clairemont Square Shopping Center parking lot. An asphalt expanse between Town Square Stadium 14 and Burlington Coat Factory. A few gulls perched on the edge of a roof. Fifteen more scattered on the pavement. From one, from another, a plaintive cry, that squeaky swing-set sound, an alien despondency. The 15 in tightening togetherness. Separate, too, and separating, mocking togetherness. Flocking in antiflock. A club, every adult member identical, their gray-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-gray mantles. Field vision whole, each sees my coming and a space to move toward. 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 red 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. A homeless man with a shopping cart wheels through the gulls’ threshing floor. He chases one or two with a crazy “Aha!”; gulls oblige by hop-running off. Then return. Has food dropped in his wake? It falls here and who cares how. Hunger in their voices, the hunger of long-distant flights, hunger between seasons of breeding and migration. Wanting food, nothing more, nothing Hitchcockian. I notice them here and in myriad elsewheres — 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?
Long ago, the noun “gull” signified a dupe. The word morphed to a verb, “to gull,” or trick, and morphed again to the human trait “gullible.” (Gulli-gulli, chants the conjurer.) These large, arrogant birds gull with an insistence I find spellworthy: Give us the messiness of your lives. Your rot is our boon. Don’t stop with the littered bounties of Happy Meal fun-packs, half-chomped fries, and burger-bun ends.
In the parking lot, I can identify one species, the Western gull, which nests on Mexico’s Islas Coronados, some 15 miles off Rosarito. It is our only 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 roost and postcard the beach. And here they keep coming — in winter, increasingly more in summer, by the hundreds of thousands, all 21 species.
A moment later, the gulls and I have reached a standoff. 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 20 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.
SPIRIT • In the spring of 1848, the year following their arrival in northern Utah, the Mormons planted 900 acres of wheat. That summer, a plague of crickets, the wingless long-horned grasshopper, descended on the fields. Though the Mormons tried to “drown, burn, and club the crickets to death,” they were out-bugged. Looking to the skies, the elders called, “God, help us! Our crops are being devoured!” Lo and behold, said the Mormons, God sent in thousands and thousands of California gulls to devour the devourers. The Mormons sank on bended knees, elated their harvest was saved by the discriminating gull. To show their gratitude, they honored the California gull as their state bird, erecting a “handsome monument to the gulls in Temple Square, Salt Lake City,” which reads, in part, “In remembrance of the mercy of God to the Mormon pioneers.” Wrote one church leader, “We believe that God had a hand in it, and it does not matter particularly whether strangers believe it or not.”
And then one day, an ornithologist points out that the gulls discovered this great food source in the fields because it was no more than an hour’s flight from their lake-island nesting grounds. A mordant observer notes that the Mormons could have been “the most sinful people in the world, the gulls still would have come and eaten all those crickets.”
Such paradoxes, like gulls fulfilling prophecy and filling their bellies, fascinate. Indeed, John James Audubon loved gulls (and all birds) so much that after he finished painting many of the species he had collected and chloroformed, he ate them.
An anecdote one hears regularly about legendary local birder Guy McCaskie is told by Sue Smith. In 2001, Smith, an amateur aviarist and bird illustrator, spotted the newest bird species to be recorded in San Diego County, the Northern wheatear, on the cliffs above La Jolla Shores. This bird, a member of the thrush family, ranges from summer breeding in Alaska to winter stays in Asia and Africa, not North America. It was way off course. Smith spotted the wheatear a mile from where she works, walked back, and phoned McCaskie at his home in Imperial Beach. When she returned to the spot, he was there. He glimpsed the bird for a moment. And then it flitted elsewhere. Only three or four people saw that bird that day, but the proof they gathered (photos, drawings, eyewitness testimony) put the bird on the state list.