Last week, I sat facing Lake Michigan when I made the mistake of turning around. Hundreds of seagulls rested in the expanse of sand that had been desolate just ten minutes before. I imagine the flock descended stealthily—staggering their individual arrivals like the crows in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds—so as not to alert me to their presence until it was too late.
It was terrifying.
A dumb teenage boy ran through the flock, and about a third of the birds took off into the air. Children all along the shore began screaming.
Seagulls are notorious coastal birds, but I see them often resting in desolate parking lots outside of dollar stores and foraging for food in dumps. I once witnessed two airborne seagulls fight over an elephant ear in an amusement park. They both lost. The elephant ear nearly landed on my head.
“For many of our readers, no memory of summers by the sea is complete without the odd sandwich-snatching seagull,” writes BBC’s Kara Segedin. “But has the most iconic of seaside stalwarts become a thing of the past? Have seagulls turned their backs on the sea in favor of a cushy life in the city?
Humans use the term “seagull” generally, but there’s really no such thing. In North America alone, there are black-headed gulls and black-tailed gulls; yellow-footed gulls and yellow-legged gulls; ivory gulls and about twenty-three other varieties. None of which are called seagulls.
The name is not the point, however. “What’s in a name?” writes Shakespeare, and centuries later, we’re still asking that question.
At least, I am.
About a month ago, I sat on Lake Michigan’s shore with a man I’ll call JD. The first thing I noticed about him when we met in person is that he lied. Online, he lists himself as 5’8”, which I know isn’t true because I’m 5’8”, and I’ve got a good two inches on him.
The height doesn’t bother me. The lie does. I don’t consider him a liar, however, until we sit on a rock by the shore, and a seagull comes closer and closer to us.
“Are you scared?” JD asks me.
Hundreds of seagulls scare me. Two seagulls in a tug-of-war game over an elephant ear scare me. One, lone gull I can handle.
“No,” I say. “I actually kind of like birds. I have a bird.”
“I think I saw that,” JD says.
He immediately realizes his mistake.
“You know what happened,” he starts to say. “You came up in my suggested friends on Facebook…which is weird because I don’t even have a Facebook…it’s my mom’s old Facebook, and I go on it sometimes, and you came up in my suggested friends.”
He’s from Tennessee, and our closest connection is probably about a dozen people removed, and I have this theory that if you’re going to cyber stalk someone and accidentally let it slip, you might as well confess the twenty-first century sin.
He changes the subject quickly. “Do you smoke?” he asks.
I shake my head. “Do you?”
“Not cigarettes,” he says.
He couldn’t, I think. Before we met, he told me that he had two point five acres of land and liked to garden. That he would like to make a business from it someday.
“I grow,” he says.
As we walked back to the parking lot where we met, he starts talking about MTV’s “Catfish” and his anxiety toward dating apps. I’m the first person he’s met, so I forgive his blatant lies. But I can add him to a list of names, and nothing he said or did genuinely surprised me. At this point, I’m used to meeting a completely different person than I did online.
By that, I simply mean a real human. One of grayscale, rather than pinstripes of black and white. No human is easily classified or generalized.
Seagulls are nesting and breeding in cities more often because cities offer rooftops free from predators, warmer temperatures, and street lighting to enable foraging at night.
And yet, seagulls as city birds are difficult to define because they still forage miles and miles away from cities along sandy shores.
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare writes.
Seagulls—by land, sea or any other name—are seagulls. They’re annoying birds, but they’re honest ones. Probably in their truest forms as they descend in flocks on a beach.
JD—by slanted truth, run-of-the-mouth explanations, and gross honesty—is still JD.
And, as far as I’m concerned, he’s still single. I could probably hook you up. And he could hook you up. If you get what I mean.
Cassie Westrate (’14) graduated with a double major in writing and international development studies. She currently lives in West Michigan, where she works as a writer, hangs out with her pet bird, and fights crime by night. Just kidding about the crime.