The Mast-Head: Mystery of the Gulls

Novelty has its attraction, of course, but so too does looking more closely at everyday things

It was late in the day, after a child’s birthday party had moved from the beach up to the house, that something I had never noticed before drew my attenton to a raft of black-backed gulls that had gathered near the shore for an evening hunt for crabs.

I have lived on this stretch of shore nearly all my life, with breaks for college and time in New York City. Like many of us who know the coast well, gulls, like the ones I suddenly became aware of, generate little interest. Their squawks and cries fade into the background usually. We note their presence as nuisances more often than not or not at all. Visitors might point and ask us what they are. We, dulled by the gulls’ constant presence, respond, “Oh that? It’s just a gull.”

Novelty has its attraction, of course, but so too does looking more closely at everyday things. The gulls that caused me to pause and look were making a sound that was familiar, a kind of rhythmic caw that I had heard too many times before to count. But I turned that way nonetheless. What I saw surprised me and I wondered why I had not been aware of it before.

Three of the birds, the noisy ones, were engaged in synchronized head-bobbing. As if by some subtle cue, they would begin calling and nodding, swimming tighly in circles, or walking together along the water’s edge. Nearby, indifferent, others rose on their wings and plunged under the water every now and then to pick up a spider crab. Those that were successful took their catch to the beach, flipped it over, and pecked at the soft parts underneath.

Down the beach, another group of gulls did the same head dance, likewise, for no purpose that I could see. Closer observers than I might explain what these birds were up to; I also suppose I could look it up. But that might spoil the mystery, might provide too many answers, might tempt me to look away again.