Rats with wings or Masters of the Sky
Over the last years we have written about the people living at the twilight zone of sea and land at the southern shores of the North Sea. Recently, repetitive long-calls made us aware we developed a blind spot, and forgot all about the animal that inhabits the same coastal zone: the seagull. The co-existence of men and gulls is complex. Opinions about seagulls differ greatly. From sheer admiration, to absolute disgust. In this blog post we give an overview of these sentiments. After reading this post it is up to you in which box you put the seagull.
Before we start with categorizing the different sentiments on seagulls, we first give some basic information about these birds. It helps you to make an informed decision at the end of this post.
1. Make some noise
Want de roep van de rollende branding, brekende op de kust, Dreunt diep in het land in mijn oren en laat mij nergens rust, 't Is stil hier, 'k verlang een stormdag, met witte jagende wolken En hoogopspattend schuim en meeuwen om kronk'lende kolken.
J.J. Slauerhoff (1898-1936)
Sea fever | Because the call of the rolling breakers, crushing on the coast, | Trembles deep in the land in my ears and leaves me nowhere at peace, | It is quiet here, I long for a storm-day, with white chasing clouds | And high-splashing foam and seagulls at whirling swirls.
The first question is, how did the seagull get its name? The common origin for the languages of the southern North Sea coast is the Proto Germanic word maigwis or maiwaz and the West Germanic word maiwi, which is an onomatopoeia, meaning a word imitating sound (i.c. the animal makes). The verbs 'to meow' and 'to mew' have the same origin. In Danish the related verb is mjaver, in Dutch it is miauwen or mauwen, in German it is miauen, and in Mid Frisian it is miau(k)je. The word for gull in Danish is måge, in Dutch meeuw, in German Möwe and in Mid Frisian (i.e. province Friesland, the Netherlands) meau or mieu, but also (see)kôb, kob(be), kôbel(er), mastersfûgels and ûnwaren (i.e. thunders). No idea why the Mid Frisians have so many names for this bird. In North Frisian (i.e. Kreis Nordfriesland, Germany) a gull is called Kuben. In Platt or Oostfreesk (i.e. region Ostfriesland, Germany) it is Mööv. With the word mouette this Germanic word even nestled itself into the French language. Do not tell the French.
The English name (sea)gull is different. The reason behind it is that the word gull probably stems from Celtic speech and is related to the Brithonic Celtic word gwylan and the Old Celtic word voilenno or welenna. The Proto Indo-European verb for 'to wail' or 'to whine', is wai. So, again, the English word gull is of origin an onomatopoeia too. This makes the shore birds, in fact, wailers or whiners. This gives you also a new way of looking at Bob Marley & The Wailers. The Old English word for gull is, by the way, mæw. No further explanation needed.
This wailing, meowing, or crying of the seagull, brings us to its characteristic, contagious long-call. The sound for which they are often maligned because no matter how strong the storm rages, you can still hear them. Although every gull performs long-calls, the herring gull’s long-call stands out. It is a piercing sound and more high-pitched than for example the lesser black-backed gull. Long-calls are performed especially in early spring. When a gull makes a long-call, the animal first leans forward with its folded wings spread slightly, and cries two to three times. Then it stretches its neck and directs its head up, sometimes even fully backward, and cries with its mouth wide open.
“Aau! Aau! Aau! Kjiii aukjaukjaukjaukjau! etcetera”
When gulls are performing long-calls in large groups simultaneously, they are socially bonding and preparing for the breeding season. It is therefore a sign that spring arrives soon. So, next time when you are woken up by such an orchestra, think it is the announcement that the grey winter is over. Want to hear voluntarely the sound of spring? check the long-call here.
2. Seagull species
Worldwide there are sixty-one different species of seagulls, belonging to the Latin family of the Laridae, although the definition of species in the case of seagulls is debatable because of widespread hybridisation. More of that below. Of the sixty-one gull species just over twenty species have been spotted along the southern North Sea coast to date. Half of these sightings, however, are rare, and are birds astray. You need patience and luck to see them all. And, good binoculars.
Terns are considered part of the Laridae family too, but mostly seen as a subcategory. Terns are in general smaller than seagulls proper. Furtermore, terns really know how to dive. Seagulls are quite amateuristic divers. Only a few feet deep with a heavy splash, that is about it. Another seabird which at face seems to have similarities with seagulls is the albatross. But it is not. It belongs to the family of Diomedeidae. The wandering albatros is even the planet's biggest flying bird with a wingspan of ca. 3,70 meters. Other seabirds breeding or preying at the North Sea are the great skua, the norther fulmar, the norther gannet (since the early ‘90s breading at the Island Heligoland, Germany too) and the common murre. Depending on your definition of the North Sea you can count in the puffins as well.
The most common three species of seagulls proper at the southern coast of the North Sea, our focus, are the black-headed gull, the herring gull, and the lesser black-backed gull. The black-headed gull, as the name already gives away, has a black head. Its wingspan is ca. 1,10 meters. The herring gull is one of the biggest seagulls there is, and has a wingspan of ca. 1,55 meters. Its wings and back are silver coloured, and it has a yellow-ochre ring around its eye. The, at first glance, quite similar lesser black-backed gull has a wingspan of ca. 1,50 meters. Its back and wings are much darker than that of a herring gull. It has a bright orange-red ring around its eyes.
Having said that, hybridisation or cross breeding, is a common phenomenon among gulls. Herring gulls and lesser black-backed gulls do mingle sometimes. But also, for example, a young stray yellow-legged gull (wingspan ca. 1,55 meters) from, let’s say, the colony on the island Mljet in the Adriatic Sea, can have liaisons with a herring gull in Germany or the Netherlands. We mention 'young' since younger gulls tend to migrate greater distances than adults, as was already noticed before the War at Kent Island, the US (Gross, 1940). Humans are just like seagulls. Furthermore, nesting colonies are often shared, without by the way hybridisation. This is a common strategy maximizing safety and security against air and land predators. Flipside, though, of having big colonies is that the birds become more susceptible to virulent diseases. Sounds familiar for humans, who made of the planet one big colony, but this aside.
Een Oester en eene Meeuw
De meeuw vlieght overal om hare kost te rapen,
En vint ontrent de strant een oester liggen gapen,
Des pickt se naer het aes; maer, eer de vogel at,
Soo sluyt de mossel toe, daer is de meeuw gevat.
J. Cats (1577-1660)
An Oyster and a Seagull | The seagull flies everywhere to collect its meal, | And finds on the beach an oyster laying opened-up, | Thus, it pecks the bait; but, before the bird ate, | So closes the clam, there the gull is caught.
The biggest seagull of all is the great black-backed gull. It has a wingspan of ca. 1,65 meters. Its back and wings are almost black, and it has a yellow bill and pinkish, long legs. In the North Sea region it breeds mainly in the north but it preys in the wider region. Occasionally, great black-backed gulls can be found breeding in the Wadden Sea area as well. The great black-backed gull is the biggest mofo of all. It hunts both at sea and on land. As a true creature of the north, it raids nesting colonies, both eggs and hatchlings, kills rabbits, rats, mice and both young and full-grown birds etc. In fact, it eats and kills anything it can swallow. So, if you spot a big, dark seagull standing on the fence of your garden when your furry chihuahua is walking around happily and freely, better hurry and bring it into safety. This northern raider will not be caught by an oyster or a clam!
3. Knowing the herring gull
Like all seabirds, also herring gulls grow old. Easily thirty years old. The age of forty-nine has been recorded already. This average age is comparable with for example the black-headed gull. It lays eggs two times every three year, each time two to three eggs. So, on average only 1.7 egg every year. If birds assess specific feeding possibilities around the colony are not good enough, some might skip a year of nestling. After all, they grow old and have time. So, if you think gulls are flexible, it is not the case. Primarily, it sticks with tradition and if herring gulls change their strategy, it takes time. Herring gulls reflect, do not panic, wait, and return every year back to the same spot, to the same colony. These gulls trust on their preying specialization (see below), and the right time will come. Eventually.
Everyone knows, herring gulls not only prey at high sea. We know them too from Monday morning when you put out the trash bags. Or, from the chock-full ferries cruising back and forth to the Wadden Sea islands. Or, from the fish stalls trying to steal your fish and/or chips. Or, from the flocks behind tractors ploughing the land. Or, from grey days trampling the grass in city parks to fool earthworms it is raining and lure them to the surface; the so-called paddling. Or, from whirling like big knots behind fishing boats to pick up the gut and under-sized fish. Or, from the beaches diving into the surf for small fish disoriented by the waves. Etcetera. What most people probably do not realize, is that every individual has its own specialization. Seagulls tearing open your garbage bags every Monday morning, are not seagulls as such. These are, in fact, a limited group of specialized individuals. Also, when it comes to seafood, gulls specialize. One specializes in crabs, another in clams, another in fish, yet another in starfish and so forth. By far, though, most gulls feed at sea still. Very classic, very traditional. Even those that nest on the flat roofs in cities predominantly prey at sea.
When it comes to relationships, herring gulls are just like us humans. In general, herring gulls are 'married' for life. The advantage of a long-term commitment is that the couple can perfect its cooperation in finding food, and with that increasing the changes for bringing up as many chicks as possibly. But, they do switch partners. Divorces happen for example if the couple is not successful in bringing up enough chicks. The cooperation lacks magic somehow, or the male is just a lousy fisher and brings not enough food to the nest. The female seems to be decisive in breaking up and choosing a new partner the next season. In general, seagulls have developed quite complicated and strong social structures, also due to their life expectancy. If we misinterpreted human behaviour, let us know.
If you think herring gulls wander at sea for weeks or months on end, this is not the case. No, seagulls are not albatrosses. They stick, like the coastal people of southern North Sea, to the coast. A full day at sea is possible, but as a rule they return that same day. At the same time, seasonal migration does take place. When spring arrives, herring gulls from northern Europe and Scandinavia travel south to return to their same nesting colonies along the southern shores of the North Sea. Herring gull populations at these southern shores also travel south, to the coast of Flanders. Those of Flanders migrate further south to the coast of Normandy etc. During fall the opposite movements take place. Dominoes falling back and forth.
Speaking herring-gullish (Tinbergen)
call-note: a monsyllabic, moderately loud 'keew' or 'kleew', It is contagious. If one startes, the rest follows;
charge-call: a modification to the call-note 'keew', but louder and staccato of character. Used in case of a predator to attack;
alarm-call: a hoarse rhythmic 'hahaha-hahahaha'. Used in case of predator, but as opposed to the charge-call, to flight;
long-call: also called the trumpeting call or the challenge. It is a series of modified 'keews'. Also contagious. See description earlier this post;
mew-call: a long-drawn note. Plaintive and wailing sound. It is used being friendly towards the mate;
choking: a queer rhythmical sound 'huoh-huoh-huoh-huoh' when a couple makes a nest together;
begging-note: a soft, sweet-sounding 'klee-ew', both grown chick and female during courtship. Also, used before having sex;
copulation-note: a rhythmic call intermediate between the alarm-call and the choking.
We tend to think herring gulls are omnipresent and are brutal, opportunistic scavengers. Even grabbing your little kid's ice cream, if needed. Thus, no need to be worried about their survival with these skills. They might even deserve it! The opposite is the case. The numbers of herring gulls are declining rapidly and today they are even listed as endangered species in the Netherlands.
About a century ago, the herring gull was endangered too. Around 1920 the population amounted 2,700 birds. Times were tough, back then. Collecting their eggs was popular, just like canned hunting, and seagull feathers were wanted in fashion. From then on measures were taken to protect the herring gull. Successfully. Around 1930 the population had increased to 10,000 and around 1950 numbers had doubled to around 20,000. Then, during the ’50 and ’60 the numbers were actively reduced by the government, and around 1970 there were about 16,000 left.
Herring gull eggs, an excellent food
One method of control to limit the growth of the herring gull population on the Frisian island Terschelling before the Second World War was collecting eggs. According to Tinbergen (1960) it was great fun and excellent food. A favorite pastime during the months May and June. The dune area was beautiful. And after collecting the eggs, people would fry or boil them on some drift wood on the beach, or even better, scramble them raw with some brandy and sugar.
Then, after the '60s, numbers recovered rapidly again. Basically thanks to the rise of the much celebrated consumer society, the big open landfills, the growing cities, the waste, the massive trawl fishing, the beach life etc. And, the fact fox populations in dunes had disappeared. Not a minor detail. Growing numbers of seagulls also led to presure on other breeding birds like the sheldrake and the eider duck. Herring gulls do attack the chicks and ducklings, and swallow them whole. At the mid ‘80s there were about 88,500 herring gulls.
Since the ‘90s numbers crash again, from 50,000 in 1990 to 30,000 in 2000. Important factors are the closing of the great landfill sites and the introduction of underground containers in cities. Another important reason is the introduction (sic) and spontaneous (re)settlement of foxes in dune areas since the ‘70s. In the dune areas of the mainland Netherlands, these foxes present almost a plague. During breeding season the success of raising offspring is exceptional vulnerable to land predators. Anyway, a very bumpy ride for the herring gull over the last hundred years. Mainly all ‘cause off men. We said it, the long-standing relationship between gull and men is a complex one.
4. Labelling seagulls
As said at the beginning of this blog post, seagulls either capture the imagination or fills people with resentment. We promised to categorize these opinions. Here are the boxes to chose from:
1. Box Divina
A positive connotation of the seagull is that it stands for enlightenment and transcendence. In a way the bestselling book Jonathan Livingston Seagull (Bach, 1970), popular with hippies in the '70s, symbolizes this. Jonathan, a young seagull, does not care for the daily routine of searching for food and being part of the colony. No, he wants to perfect the art of flying. Devoting his live to sublimize flying, he does achieve ever higher levels of being, of awareness. Ultimately, he reaches the highest level, namely that of a teacher. From then onward, Jonathan teaches new generations the meaning of life, the art of flying.
A similar theme can be found in the comic Canardo, in the edition L’amerzone (Sokal, 1986). In L’amerzone, inspector Canardo becomes part of a quest through the jungle to find the mythical, white birds that float forever above a vulcano, without ever touching the ground. Seen as the highest achievement of life. They do find the serene, white birds but brutally, albeit briefly, disturb the balance.
2. Box Ecce homo
A step down the ladder from box 1 is that seagulls symbolize freedom, beauty, and insouciance. Seagulls are slender built, aerodynamic, have elegant wings, and are able to defy heavy storms. It is the seagull that flies out to sea, into the great wide open. The endlessness. The adventure. The bird seemingly can do without land, eat fish from sea, can swim and rest on the water, and they can even drink the salty seawater. Seagulls have special glands that filter out the salt. The salt is then transported to the 'nostrils' at its bill. By shaking its head and bill firmly, the salt flies out off the nostrils.
But also, in a way seagulls are always with us, with the coastal dweller. Everywhere where we are, they are too. Circling above our heads, observing us with their cold, emotionless piercing, yellow-ringed eyes. Looking from above at world, at the people and their struggle. Ecce homo. Like in the Dutch novel Meeuwen (Bernlef, 1975), symbolizing the contrast between men’s lonelyness and misery, and the seagull’s unconstrained liberty. The main character Arend Wijtman in the book Meeuwen finds a seagull drenched in petrol. It sits helpless at the water-line at the beach on the Wadden Sea island where Wijtman stays. Out of pity he kills the animal. With this act, he kills what contrasts him. All hope is lost, therefore. A forbade the main character will kill himself too, soon.
Also, in the Russian play The Seagull (Chekhov, 1895) this bird represents freedom, youth, innocence, and the modern (artistic) ways. Here too a seagull is killed. Shot dead. And stuffed this time. As a symbol of the past ways or, again, as a symbol that the character Nina, who wants to be an actrice, will not achieve her ambitions and fame. Nina who refers to herself in letters as Seagull. The seagull is dead, and with it her aspirations and ambitions might die too.
The seagull as being a symbol of freedom was -unfortunately- also used by the fascist movement National Socialistische Beweging (NSB) in the Netherlands (1931-1945). The current Dutch political party Partij voor de Vrijheid (PPV) and Greek political party Ανεξάρτητοι Έλληνες (ANEL) both use (a reference to) the seagull as their symbol too.
3. Box Mare
The labels of this box are fear and hope, and are mainly derived from sailors and seafarers. The cry of a seagull is ominous and foreboding. When fine weather starts to turn bad, seagulls with their cries and long-calls announce the storm. They know it is coming, leave open sea to seek shelter on land. The saying is: “Seagull, seagull, sit on the sand, it’s never good weather when you’re on land”. At the same time, they know that the storm will bring feeding opportunities as well. So, there is besides up-coming danger, excitement, anticipation and hope.
For Russian sailors, the cries of the seagull are the cries of the seamen who died at sea and who want to be buried properly. The restless souls. And, more fear in the horror movie The Birds (1963) of the British film director Alfred Hitchcock: seagulls terrorize and kill everyone. We think it must have been great black-backed gulls who did the acting for Hitchcock.
En als ik gehaast,
Genaderd en genaast
Door den jagende dood,
Hoor ik den troost
Van ’t eendre golfgeruisch,
Dat is als het vermengd gejuich
Van al haar schipbreukelingen, al haar meeuwen,
Aanbreken over de eeuwen,
Die mij verzwijgen en verteren.
J.J. Slauerhoff (1898-1936)
The Sea | And when I hurried, | Closing-in and by-sided | By the hunting death, | I Hear the comfort | Of the surf's monotone noise, | Which is like the distorted rejoice | Of al its shipwrecked, all its seagulls, | The break of centuries, | That makes me withhold and consume inside.
The association with hope and luck comes from the fact that sailors knew when they spotted seagulls, land could not be far away anymore. Especially, when in distress, you knew help was near.
4. Box Vulgus
The labels of this box are greed and stupidity. We should not waste too many words on this label. Watch the scene of the animated film Finding Nemo (2003) where little fish Nemo is being saved by a pelican from hundreds of seagulls, or flying rats as the pelican calls them, crying "mine, mine, mine, mine". This image is often the image people have when thinking about gulls. Birds that even shit on the heads of bronze statues of dead important people. Imagine! Perhaps an argument not to tear down these statues.
Seagulls were, for example, being accused of snatching snacks from strolling tourists in Sint Ives in Cornwall, the UK. It turned out, again, it was only a few specialized individuals (Camphuysen, 2018). The same holds true for your weekly annoyance when your trash bags are being ripped open in front of your doorstep, within a few minutes. Not the slightest respect for your privacy. Displaying all your personal stuff to your neighbours. Do remember, it is probably a fixed group. Also, realize they get old. Probably, the seagulls in your street know you much better than you know them. They might have seen your kid being born and go the high school.
And, lastly, take this advice. If you happen to be at a spot where a group of seagulls have mastered the technique of snatching food, look them in the eye. As long as you have eye-to-eye contact with the bird, it will not try its luck. At least, not so fast (Goumas, 2020).
Now it is up to you to tick the right box!
Note: If you want to know which other wildlife you might come across hiking the Frisia Coast Trail, check the page Cows & Other Wildlife.
Further reading & watching:
Bach, R. & Munson, R., Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970)
Bernlef, J., Meeuwen (1975)
Camphuysen, K., De zilvermeeuw (2018)
Chekhov, A., Чайка (The Seagull), play (1895)
Goumas, M., Boogert, N.J. & Kelley, L.A., Urban herring gulls use human behavioural cues to locate food (2020)
Gross, A.O., The Migration of Kent Island Herring Gulls (1940)
Hitchcock, A.J., The Birds, film (1963)
Kralj, J., Barišić, S., Ćiković, D., Tutiš V. & Deans van Swelm, N., Extensive post-breeding movements of Adriatic Yellow-legged Gulls Larus michahellis (2013)
Kroonen, G., Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Germanic (2013)
Lekkerkerker, K. (ed), J. Slauerhoff. Verzamelde gedichten (2008)
Olsen, K.M., Gulls of the World. A Photographic Guide (2018)
Renswoude, van O., Het Germaans in het Frans, blog (2020)
Sokal, B., L’amerzone; Une Enquête De L’inspecteur Canardo (1986)
Stanton, A., Finding Nemo, film (2003)
Tinbergen, N., The Herring Gull’s World. A Study of the Social Behavior of Birds (1960)
Visser, W. (ed), Frysk Wurdboek (1992)
Witsen Geysbeek, P.G., Dichterlijke werken van Jacob Cats, Ridder, Raadspensionaris van Holland. Alle de werken van Jacob Cats (1828)
Wochnik. P., Die Kolonie, der Müll und die Silbermöwen, blog (2020)