PsychoGeography #92: A bird's eye view

Share

As I've had cause to remark upon in this column before (surely a phrase that will spark an electric thrill up the spine of every reader), the black-backed gull is a most curious animal. It is what zoologists call a "ring species" - populations are found right around the world in a continuous band. Black-backs on this side of the globe can, of course, mate successfully; they can also mate successfully with black-backs a few degrees further on, and those gulls can in turn mate with their neighbours. However, "our" black-backs cannot mate with black-backs on the far side of the world. Cursed gull! Why must you taunt us with your giddy global go-round of copulation?

Yes, it's the gull that troubles me - not the ins and outs of evolution by natural selection. To be frank, I don't like gulls, I don't like their yellow eyes, their monocular stare, their thermal posturing - the way they insist on hanging about. My idea of hell would've been to be marooned on St Kilda, when that remote Hebridean island was still utterly dependent on seafowl. The St Kildans ate puffins, gannets and fulmars. The exported their feathers, they used gannet corpses as shoes (I kid you not), and anointed the umbilicuses of their newborn babies with fulmar oil; a practice which, by introducing tetanus, greatly increased infant mortalities and led - some believe - to the eventual evacuation of the island in the 1930s.

It was perfectly all right when gulls kept to their places. If you go walking along the high sea cliffs of the British Isles you can reasonably expect to run across a few thousand gulls. Likewise, if you pitch up in any seaside town the world over, the presence of a gull, standing on a rooftop opposite your hotel window and waiting for you to go out and buy some chips is a reasonable accompaniment to the whole à la plage experience. But that wasn't enough for the gulls - oh no. It's as if they've spent the past half century or so watching Hitchcock's The Birds over and over again, before finally deciding to cash in on film stardom with a few personal appearances.

Nowadays you can see gulls opening supermarkets in the middle of England at any time of the year. "Look," I often say to these narcissistic fowl, "you are seagulls, get it?" They never deign to answer, save with their high-pitched yelping, which sounds like fingernails scraping the blue board of the sky. Supermarkets, town centres, landfill sites in the East Midlands, the playing fields of our most select public schools - there is nowhere sufficiently urbane, or far enough away from the briny, that the gulls don't consider it a reasonable habitat. A few nights ago I saw a common gull proceeding along the South Lambeth Road with great insouciance - and riding a fox.

The truth is I do understand the reason for this horrific bouleversé - we have only ourselves to blame. We've screwed up their habitat, while leaving large quantities of edible muck lying around ours. You can hardly blame a bird for opportunism. So why this Self-gull antagonism? Well, it goes back to the sojourn I had some years ago on the Shetland island of Unst. I put up with the Laird, whose reduced circumstances meant that he and the Lady were operating a B&B. It being midsummer, I resolved to walk in the midnight sun of those parts, to the uttermost point of Britain, a cape called Hermaness.

Now, it happened that the Laird's grandfather, a keen ornithologist, had been responsible for the preservation of the great skua, a gull known colloquially as the bonxie. These bonxies were encouraged to breed on Hermaness, and breed they did. They are large, brownish birds, aggressively territorial, and with the rather alarming habit of dive-bombing the heads of any humans who venture too close to their nests. As I slogged up on to the top of the ness, the first bonxie lifted lazily up off its nesting site and came swooping down towards me. If it hadn't have been for a convenient stick that I was able to whirr about my head, my eyeball would have ended up as beak ornament - or so I suspected.

I couldn't prevent a tremendous howl of fear and rage: "Fucking bonxies!" Whereupon about 60 more took to the air. The next two hours were a vigorous workout for arms as well as legs, as skua after skua made its run. When I got back to civilisation some wiseacre told me all you have to do stop the bonxies hitting you is wear a bobble hat, because they always aim for the highest point. Still, I wasn't to know this - anymore that the foul fowl were to know that I'd no sooner eat their offspring than ... err, eat their offspring.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Recruitment Genius: Development Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Development Scientist is required to join a ...

Recruitment Genius: Accountant

£25000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join...

Day In a Page

Read Next
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012  

I saw the immigration lies a mile off - and now nobody can deny it

Nigel Farage
The Uber app allows passengers to hail a taxi with a smartphone  

Who wouldn’t like a sharing economy? Well, me, for one

Mary Dejevsky
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?