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

Project Officer (HMP Brixton Mentoring Project)

£24,000 per annum pro rata (21 hours per week): Belong: Work as part of a cutt...

Construction Solicitor / Partner

Highly Competitive Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - Senior Construction Solici...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £45000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Key featuresA highly motivated ...

DT teachers required for supply roles in Cambridge

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: DT teachers required ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Fifi Geldof (left) with her sister Pixie at an event in 2013  

Like Fifi Geldof, I know how important it is to speak about depression

Rachael Lloyd
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering