That’s where I entered this story: hearing, “Dead baby seagull!”
I was seated at a picnic table, my back to the woman pointing a long, thick fingernail at the roof of a nearby building. Another garden visitor and I had been chatting, but during a lull in our conversation, the proclamation came again:
“Dead baby seagull! Dead baby seagull!”
We were at a community garden, so in the spirit of community, I rose from my seat and moved toward the woman’s vantage point. Dozens of seagulls were scuttering around the roof or perching by the chimneys or soaring in tight circles overhead. She indicated a still, dark, speckled body half a meter above the gutter. “That baby seagull is dead,” she declared. We couldn’t see its head, and I didn’t know the indicators of a dead seagull—nor would I have thought to call that one, barely smaller than the large white bird perched nearby, a baby.
“I raised a baby seagull once,” she added. I turned from facing the roof to listen to her story. The woman, Maggie, seemed almost like an urban Radagast: her long, white hair fell straight and voluminous around her drawn face, skin white but darkened by days sat outside among the birds. She wore a large navy windbreaker and loose light-colored trousers, a contrast to my button-down t-shirt and black shorts. Her fingers, weathered by age and a lifetime (literally, in her telling) of holding cigarettes, jerked around as she recounted her tale.
Sometime in or after 1995, Maggie’s friend brought home a duck egg. “That’s a seagull egg,” she told the friend, but the friend—I’ll call her Claire—was undeterred. Maggie instructed her on incubating the egg, and after a few weeks, a tiny, duck-like creature cracked its way out of the shell.
Claire paid no mind to the splotchy coloring and large, hooked beak; to her, it was a duck. Maggie instructed her to feed it with pre-chewed food in a special spoon for hatchlings: “It can eat anything you eat except for fruit.” (According to Birdfeeder Expert, gulls can eat fruit, but it wouldn’t help a baby to grow.)
Maggie and Claire named the bird “Babe” after the titular pig in Babe (1995). Babe grew into the type of “baby” seagull that Maggie had pointed to on the roof near the garden, but Claire remained determined to raise it as a duck.
Maggie’s patience wore thin. “One day I went over when there were a bunch of baby seagulls in the front garden. So I went inside and I said, Look, it’s a fucking seagull. I took Babe outside and threw her in the air, and she flew to all the other seagulls, just like I said.”
Babe grew up among her kind and nested in a perch in Claire’s front garden. “She’s a great-great-great-great-many greats-grandmother now,” Maggie told me, “and she still comes to my window every morning.” She motioned a light tap with one finger. “I open the window for her and I give her one piece of bologna.”
In a seaside city, it’s easy to develop a combative relationship with gulls. They swoop down to steal food from tables (or hands), fight in the street, devour other dead birds (and dead seagulls) in gutters, poop on everything, and never, ever, ever shut up. Multiple seagulls in Aberdeen are straight-up shoplifters.
Caring about seagulls is a form of counter-culture here. My cousin’s band is called Gulls. A local skate brand sells “Cull the
Gulls Humans” gear. One of my friends insists that he feels bad for the gulls: “We’ve taken their home, and now they’re stuck scavenging.”
When I’m watching two gulls deep-throating each others’ beaks while screaming on a footpath, that sympathy is not my first thought. Yet Maggie and Claire and Babe managed to build an unexpected family of sorts; a trust and a bond that survives the usual malice between human and gull. I’m not looking to rescue a dying baby seagull, but perhaps I don’t have to hate them—at least not all the time.