The sound of the bird-whistler is like the squeal of air escaping a balloon’s neck. When the whistler is propelled by the hammer-punch of the gun, the rush up through the air bends the noise a bit, making a high-pitched, annoying, and soon-over whine. “We don’t want to hurt them,” Lozano says. “We just want them to move on.”
There’s probably a flock we can check out on the mesa above us. Often the gulls perch on the edges of the layer-cake hills, where, Lozano says, “They’re thinking, ‘Maybe those guys won’t look at me and I’ll fly in and grab something real quick.’ ” Cool, windless days, like today, the gulls stick around; hot days they’ll get the gun’s message and head for the ocean, five miles off. Arriving, we find a hundred of them, a gray-and-white phalanx ready to play scaredy-gull. Lozano loads his gun. He aims it out the window, and the flock takes wing. They’re all coming at us. “Oops,” he says, “they saw me pointing the gun.” He fires. The alarmed flock turns chaotically, flaps hurriedly to gain altitude. Lozano loads and fires. They startle again, zig and zag. Once more he fires. Their array is jumbled now — messy, not elegant. They’re unsure of where they are. Soon they regroup and head south. Ten minutes later, they’re back.
Not only do the Cat operators cover the trash with mulch every night, Saturday evenings they stretch huge tarps on top of that mulch. Even so, the gulls land and peck, their nostrils ablaze with the stench of ripening waste. “They seldom break through,” Lozano says.
PORTRAY • Among the most original American stylists writing short stories today is H.E. Francis. In “A Disturbance of Gulls,” a man returns to the seaside cabin in which his reclusive grandfather has just died. He arrives to sort through the old man’s belongings, but he senses the soul of his grandfather has remained behind. He wants to help the soul pass and suspects a gull may provide the means. Far out on the pilings of a dock, he watches one gull, among many, on its perch, “immobile and lifeless it seemed, clean white with the clean gray wings, black tail-feathers, and something proud in the head with the hard yellow eye, the authoritative yellow bill. Seen out of the corner of his eye, the post with the still gull stood on the sand like a presence staring out to sea; and if the gull moved its head, so like a cap, it startled.”
After speaking with the doctor and staff who cared for his grandfather during his final days, the man returns to the cabin and naps on his grandfather’s bed. He is jolted awake from a dream: A dazed gull, having flown through an open window and struck the wall, has settled beside him. “Even in the dark its eye glittered. The gull’s body hung heavy, the feet dangled like dead hands, the neck lay back over his arm, the head hung contrite.” Reviving the gull from its near-dead state, he releases it. The bird returns to the flock that inhabits the seaside pilings. Later, the man tries to draw physically close to one gull — the one he nursed? But to no avail. “Abruptly it spread wings and fluttered, the awkward feet dangling, and then, the legs bending back, rose in a slow graceful arc. How it rose! How it fused wind and its motion. He felt himself rise with that flight into the great eye which spread blue around him, enclosing, drawing green and water and all earth into the flowing around.” And then — as it must — the gull “winged higher and higher. The sound resounding within him, he went back to the house.”
The story works throughout with this mystical quality in which gulls carry the taciturnity and aloneness of the grandfather. His passage to spirit is experienced in the metaphor of the gull’s flight. Something intrinsic about the “disturbance of gulls” allows us to feel the freedom that death brings, the going and the letting go.
NEST AND MEW • As children we all daubed onto our idyllic seaside paintings the v flecks of gulls flying over. So powerfully mundane were those strokes that the commercial world employs them still. Realty signs with setting sun, waves, a whale’s tail, crown-rounded trees, and a single v’d gull. City banners in blue with egret, leaping dolphin, pier, surfboard, and three gulls, wings arching in soaring flight. Ye Olde Plank Inn driftwood sign with palm trees, A-frame, island, sailboat, and a bevy of gulls. Double-garage doors with leaning palms over a purple-pink sunset and dozens of gulls passing or arriving. A mosaic welcome sign for Imperial Beach on a grassy boulevard island: Most Southwesterly City in Continental U.S. — islands, sunset, sailboat, gulls by the dozen. Gulls illustrate + walkway signs on Mission Boulevard, directions to sand-covered paths hustled over by early-morning surfers.
As if the gull had a wing in wanting all that!
How often a pair of gulls is depicted on cedar-shake coast cottages for honeymoon or tryst. How often a single gull appears as icon, left or leaving on its own. In its guises, this little Napoleon of lake and shore has chosen San Diego to beach and bay, just as San Diegans have. The gull drew us here, for the bird lives what it represents.
Look to Ocean Beach as its symbolic hub. There it’s found, posted in the rear windows of “guy” pickups, carved onto warping wooden signs — a wing-ruffled gull gawking over the town’s initials, OB. So charged with drama is the depiction that one cannot tell whether the gull is alighting or embarking. The point is, its wildness is blessing OB, a wildness that stubbornly abides what Richard Louv once characterized as “the far end of America.”
Yet, for some reason, San Diego’s gurus of tourism have not embraced OB’s gull. Instead they’ve enthroned the cuter, captured species, Shamu and Hua Mei. The San Diego Zoo, always stumping for more visitors and more conservancy, uses panda and panda image to create chamber-of-commerce creatures. One birder tells me that pandas are adored because they seem childlike and huggable, whereas birds, even in cages, weigh nothing on the adorability scale. Birds stimulate more our sense of awe and abstraction, less our catch-and-keep enslavement.