On the first truly cold and blustery day this winter, the gulls were swimming together in a huge flotilla near the railroad bridge over the Fox River. Of all places to be on that day: bobbing in a river exposed to blasts of wind ripping spray off whitecaps. How could that be the warmest and driest place a gull could think of on the first miserable day of winter? Maybe gulls don’t think. Maybe gulls don't need to be warm and dry. Maybe they're warm, even if they're not dry. Maybe they don’t get wet. Maybe it was unsafe to fly. There wasn’t a discernable source of warm water spewing out of the paper mill. But maybe that was it. I couldn't find any information about gulls that would explain this strange sight.
Not many days later the gulls were back near that place, but high up in the sky flying and gliding in a fairly tight circle as if dozens of them were caught in the eye of a hurricane. I did read something about gulls flying in circles around fishing boats waiting to snatch whatever part of the catch the fishers didn’t want. Maybe there was a food source in both instances I just couldn't see. On neither occasion did I have time to stop and observe more.
I was thinking about gulls yesterday before I left on a walk, but I had no expectation that I'd see them. Just south of the 172 bridge on the Fox River Trail, the shore bulges out a bit into the river away from the trail. I like to follow animal trails through the red-branched thickets there. The sun, the size of the moon when the moon reaches a bit above the tallest trees, shone weakly and with a moon’s warmth through thinning gray clouds. A few gulls flew across the face of the sun. Then a few more joined them, sweeping by them into a circle. More joined the circle – maybe as many as thirty – and a smaller whirlwind of gulls than I had seen before had suddenly formed. The whirlwind drifted further east from the river and unwound itself just as suddenly as it had appeared. At its peak, I heard the calls of only a few gulls.
As I walked home, pairs or trios of gulls or single gulls, all silent, flew north above the trail with what appeared to be urgent determination, as if they were late for a meeting. They’d meet a gull or two headed south, but none of the southbound gulls turned to spin into a spiral of gulls as they had before. There were no greeting cries, just silent gulls, white ones and an occasional dark gray one disappearing into the gray haze of the oncoming snow shower. As if they were all intent upon their own business.
Gulls do meet, often at the same place every year, to mate and raise a new brood, the males dedicated to feeding the females, so the females can form the new generation in their wombs. Gulls often mate for life. Mother and father gulls stake out a territory around their nests and take turns raising their young and finding food for the family. Maybe that’s what the wheeling spirals of gulls in the sky are all about … a sign in the heavens that there’s food below for all.
It’s easy to wax poetic about the cooperative social tendencies of gulls: mating for life, fathers as invested in the raising of children as mothers, working together to provide food for all.
The London Evening Standard tells another story. In 2002, an 80 year old man washing gull poop off their nesting area was attacked by gulls and fell off the concrete wall he was standing on and died. That year the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals received 1700 angry phone calls about gulls attacking people. With animals and birds, as Scar in The Lion King says, it does all end in violence when it comes to defending one’s social order. It’s us or them. Humans, I believe, were created to establish cooperative social orders as admirable as gulls, but created in the image of God, we can do better, as well.