Saturday, 18 April 2015

Gull-Ability

Gulls are hard. I hate Gulls.

A History

In the beginning there was just one species of Gull, known and beloved by birder and public alike it was called ‘The Sea-Gull’. They lived by the Sea and their call sounded like ‘Koow’ or ‘Gull’, if you will, everything was simple.

By the time of the industrial revolution mankind had become quite materialistic, this led to a consumer society and the throw away mentality we have today, this in turn led to developing sites where we could throw away the stuff we had bought some while ago in order to hoard new stuff. Thus the landfill was born and the Sea-Gull moved inland in order to exploit this new resource.

People that had not travelled to the seaside called these birds that they were seeing for the first time ‘The Land-Gull’. They lived by the Landfill and their call sounded like ‘Koow’ or ‘Gull’, if you will, everything was fairly simple.

Science and Discovery

Around this time, and due to the Catholic church banning the use of telescopes for investigating the universe, canny telescope salesmen turned their attention to a new branch of science that was growing in popularity; Ornithology. Recognizing that all these new Ornithologists were keen to make names for themselves these salesmen suggested looking at birds with said scopes.

Though early scopes left much to be desired in optical reach and clarity, nonetheless new discoveries were soon being made. There were Large Gulls and  Little Gulls, ones with Black backs and ones with Grey backs, some had dark heads and some didn’t and some had them in the summer and not in the winter; these were heady times for the new generation of Ornithologists. Things were not so simple after all.

Confusing Times

Whilst optical technology was in its infancy, communication technology had not even been born and this often led to scientists working in isolation, unaware of developments with colleagues working elsewhere. Black-headed Gull for instance was discovered in Britain but the name Larus melanochephalus (literally Gull with the head of black) had already been given to a similar species in the Mediterranean, so it was awarded the scientific name Larus ridibundus (literally laughing Gull),  this led to problems with the Americans who already had one of those and now had to make up another scientific name for their bird, they called it Larus atricilla (literally Gull with a black tail), this meant the Japanese had to come up with a different name for their Black-tailed Gull so they called it Larus Crassirostris (literally Gull with the thick bill). Further progress in telescopes later led British scientists to realise that Black-head Gulls actually had brown heads but sadly the Chinese had already called one of their birds Larus brunnicephalus (literally Gull with the head of brown) so the whole sorry affair was buried. Things were getting more complicated.

A Period of Instability/Stability

By the end of the 19th Century upwards of twenty-five species of Gull had been described. At this time humanity was plunged into an orgy of war and the scientific world turned its attention away from bird discovery and to the development of weapons of mass destruction, historians have postulated that the diplomatic difficulties arising from the previous century of Gull discovery played a contributory part in the turmoil that followed during the 20th Century, and who am I to argue. Things were definitely more complicated.

A Period of Stability/Instability

By the mid 20th Century the world was returning to an uneasy stability but the world of Gulls was becoming decidedly unstable. Soldiers returning from the battlefield with looted superior German optics went on to discover further species of Gull but the increase was incrementally slow. It was science that once again sped up the process. Nuclear weapons had been invented and scientists were now at a loose end, so they discovered DNA. Ornithologists soon realised that inside every Gull was some of this DNA and some Gulls had different coloured DNA (such is my understanding) to other Gulls, they started naming them as new species. Birders, as the returning soldiers with the looted optics were now calling themselves, were at first reluctant to embrace this new concept but it was sold to them as a listing opportunity and gradually the idea became acceptable.

At first each Gull had to be dissected to determine what colour its DNA was and hence what species it was, but later this practice went the same way as egg collecting as the nation became more conservation conscious. Fortunately optical developments were coming along apace and before long birders were convincing themselves that they could actually see the DNA difference without resorting to dismemberment. Things were extremely complex.

End Game

Now in the 21st Century we have entered a period of scientific and Ornithological free fall. There are so many Gull species that there are not enough descriptive names (Black, Brown, Grey-headed etc.) to go round, we have virtually run out of geographical (Caspian, Mediterranean, Iceland etc.) names, now almost every birder has a Gull (Ross, Franklin, Bonaparte etc.) named after himself, Gulls are even being named after comedians ((Richard) Herring, (Syd) Little, (Phil) Silver, Sooty etc.).

Self-proclaimed identification gurus are proliferating, every birder and his dog are Gull experts, people are discussing Gulls, watching Gulls, photographing Gulls, even blogging about Gulls. But the end is nigh! Recycling is in, consumerism is out, landfills are being closed. Soon the Gulls will be returning to whence they came.

At the end there will be just one species of Gull, known and beloved by birder and public alike it will be called ‘The Sea-Gull’. They will live by the Sea and their call will sound like ‘Koow’ or ‘Gull’, if you will, everything will be simple.



Which brings me to yesterday. I spotted an interesting Gull at the bottom end of the West Warwick, I went to investigate, I set up my scope, it flew off, another Gull took its place, it looked interesting, I photographed it, I thought it looked like a 1st summer Yellow-legged Gull, I asked my mate who is a Gull expert, he said it was, I wished I had just trusted my own ability and put the news out straight away, I hate Gulls.



It’s #101 for the patch this year. I still hate Gulls.


PW @birdingprof

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