My friend Herb Fischer loved birds. He lived in Montauk, Long Island. During Montauk's harsh winters, Herb took care of a tribe of feral cats, which presented a bit of a problem for the birds, since sometimes they ate them. Herb tried to keep the cats well fed in part because he greatly appreciated the birds. We are not talking about Rainbow Lorikeets or Golden Pheasants. We are talking about sea gulls. In Herb's case, herring gulls. He and I would watch them on steel-cold February mornings, descending on restaurant garbage cans with a madcap shrieking and whirling, their wing beats snapping time to their plucking and gobbling.
Herb found this lovely.
"Their table manners are atrocious, but they're survivors," he would smile. "There's beauty in that."
My friend Herb Fischer has passed on, but I thought of Herb the other day. I was down at Ventura Harbor, admiring a gathering of birds lining one of the docks. The birds were looking out to the water, perhaps admiring the same lovely fall view I was -- blue water, blue sky, blue mountains -- when they lifted as one in a great clattering; pelicans and cormorants and gulls and various birds I didn't recognize because I am not an ornithologist.
I thought they looked regal, albeit a bit hodge-podge rising into the sky, kind of like the Blue Angels after a couple of drinks. Some shot straight up into the blue. The pelicans made a lovely bank and strafed low across the water. The gulls made a raucous noise, like cheering.
I imagined Herb Fischer looking down and smiling.
Not everyone feels as Herb did.
"Look at all this shit," said a man standing nearby. "It's disgusting."
Suffice to say this was not a figure of speech. Baking sun and stillness worked together to create an ammonia-like scent that made my eyes water. I was afraid the man might think I was crying.
"Stupid, useless birds," the man said. "They should start by getting rid of all the sea gulls in Southern California."
I looked at him. I wanted to say, Left alone without a can opener and a Subway coupon you wouldn't last two days.
Instead I said, "Getting rid of all the gulls would be a pretty big chore."
As I mentioned, I am not an ornithologist, but I have spent a fair bit of time out on the Channel Islands off our Southern California coast and anyone who has been to any of these islands knows where I am going with this.
"The sea birds you see along the Southern California coast?" a Park Service guide once said to me. "They probably all hatched on the Channel Islands."
A trip to one Channel Island alone will confirm this. Tiny Santa Barbara Island, some 38 miles off the coast of Los Angeles, is home to avian armies that fill the skies, the grasses, the gullies, the beaches and pretty much anything else I left out. Oh right, they also float atop the bobbing ocean, like snowflakes refusing to melt. On Santa Barbara Island you'll find house finches, horned larks, peregrine falcons, orange-crowned sparrows, barn owls, burrowing owls, and short-eared owls (the owls journey across from the mainland to dine upon the island's succulent deer mice), but the island is, without doubt, the domain of sea birds. In various seasons the island's grassy uplands and plunging cliffs serve as nesting ground and haven for California brown pelicans, black oystercatchers, ashy and black storm petrels, cormorants, and the largest known breeding colony of Xantus' murrelets in the world (very rare and very interesting; look them up). But the sea gulls are my favorite.
At certain times of year, Santa Barbara Island is buried under Hunnish hordes of western gulls. This is not hyperbole. Santa Barbara Island is part of Channel Islands National Park, and if the Park Service vacates the island for any length of time, they can have some serious problems. The gulls fill the island's rolling grasslands with their nests, which isn't a problem, but if they aren't regularly shooed off, they also clog the trails too. Once, after the passage of several months without human habitation, Park Service personnel returned to Santa Barbara Island to find pretty much everything -- how to put this delicately? -- covered in bird shit. On my visit to Santa Barbara Island, I had to rinse my shirt and ball cap (a necessity) in the ocean after every hike.
No, gulls are not pretty. But they are a testament to survival. If you look carefully while you hike about Anacapa Island -- also a sea gull haven -- you'll see a littering of small bones, as if a horrific battle between two Lilliputian tribes has recently taken place. The bones have been plucked from garbage cans and discarded Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets on the mainland, eleven miles away. In ornithology-speak, sea gulls are the consummate generalists, gobbling up whatever foodstuff is available. In this, they are not unlike many humans, only I know few humans willing to, or capable of, traversing eleven miles of ocean for a chicken wing. Researchers who have the honor of investigating such things have seen gulls regurgitate chicken bones, onions, spaghetti, casserole, carrots, chips, dog food, and mince.
I told the man on the dock some of this, but not all of it, because I knew he would not likely be convinced.
I was right.
"Yea, well the Park Service should see about getting rid of them," he said.
Which is why I didn't tell him how, when you walk among Santa Barbara Island's grasslands with thousands of nesting birds, it makes your heart lift to see all that hope and new life. Or how, if you listen in a very quiet place, a gull's beating wings make a lovely rustle, like a bag of sand lightly shaken.
I didn't mention my friend Herb Fischer at all.
As we stood silent, a pair of gulls thumped to the dock and began strutting about as if they owned the place.
Maybe they do.