McCaskie’s name is invoked by his protégés as the “father of California birding.” Now a semi-retired engineer, McCaskie can be found, when not birding, before a horseshoe-shaped desk at the Trepte Construction Company in Kearny Mesa, scouring blueprints. He reminds one of an Old World, off-duty Santa Claus. Thick, hoary hair bunches on his collar. Suspenders hold up his stove-belly-big black jeans. And he speaks with zeal, a birder’s consuming excitement to hunt and see the rarity. When I ask him about a particular bird, he’s likely to say, “Oh, now that’s a pretty bird,” mixing a touch of Sylvester the cat with Professor Henry Higgins. A true sportsman, he has often driven 500 miles, with or without dinner or friends, tipped off about a bird he’s never seen. Like the Northern wheatear. To add another notch on the barrel.
Scotland-born and England-raised, McCaskie enrolled at San Diego State in 1957 and liked it here so much he never left. The sheer numbers of birds (not just gulls) and habitats (desert, lowlands, mountains, coasts, ocean) were twin seductions. San Diego County has more species of birds known to occur (486 and counting), he tells me, than any other county in the United States.
McCaskie scans a list of local gulls — one of hundreds of lists, tabulations, records, studies, journals he refers to regularly. For four decades he’s been the regional editor for Southern California (up to and including Kern and Inyo Counties) of North American Birds. This quarterly report is the bible of regional bird identification. He gathers all observations of birds and makes taxonomic lists of the new, unusual, and accidental birds moving through.
Who names these birds? I ask. The California gull, for instance. McCaskie says it was probably named by someone who collected or verified one and did so somewhere in the state. Common names imply little, he warns. Herring gull is for the bird’s love of herring; glaucous gull for its shade of gray; Iceland gull is seen on occasion in Iceland, though it nests in Greenland. (Greenland, we recall, takes the cake for misnomering.) Sabine’s gull was named after Sabine, a sea captain. “Most of the ornithologists name [birds] after a buddy and have the buddy name [one] after them — at least, in the old days,” McCaskie says. “But this sea captain, Sabine, wasn’t in on the loop, so he just decided to name it after himself.”
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, one of 37 million American cats, most of whom receive Christmas presents each year. 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 banal. 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. Their vanishing habitat may carry the ancillary means that ensures our survival.
Gulls mean enough to us to leave them be. The mascots of a local professional hockey team won’t be found in any zoo.
SCAVENGE • Most birds resist the zoo’s definition of “animal.” It would be painlessly easy to snatch a bird, especially the gull. So plentiful are gulls that they require none of the zoo’s protection. And yet they are captivated by the chaos (and waste) of our lives.
No one knows this better than Paul Lozano, who’s been working dumps for three decades and now 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 trash piling. Below, three huge Caterpillar tractors are spreading and compacting the waste from Chula Vista dump trucks. The Cats slip-slide over the grunge pile as though they’re maneuvering on basketballs. About 50 yards away is a spotter, who signals incoming 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 idea is to keep them from landing. Lozano says they will land but “only if we turn our backs. They’re sneaky.”
In the old days, Lozano says, thousands roosted here. “I remember driving a piece of equipment and the bird would be gliding next to me, outside, so close and so beautiful. They are very beautiful, and big.” 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 Amphitheatre, new Levittowns rising on the far ridges.