DO NOT FEED THE WILDFOWL
(sign prominently posted at the edge of Lake Trashmore)
Sunday’s quiet is rent by a cacophony of screeches, honks, and hisses. Hundreds of ducks, geese, and gulls are afloat and aflap on the surface of Lake Trashmore. We’ve come out early this morning, armed with a kite and curiosity, hoping to enjoy a family outing at Mount Trashmore, one of the country’s first experimental trash-based parks.
Mount Trashmore is the product of what in retrospect was a blindingly obvious idea. Rather than continue to add to an unsightly and expensive landfill, which involved digging and filling a succession of enormous holes, the solid waste was instead heaped high, then covered with dirt. The resulting mountain and surrounding area were then converted into a park. The dirt needed for this process was taken from a site adjacent to the trash mountain, thus creating the lake.
We’d seen the 60-foot tall "mountain" when first driving along the expressway toward Virginia Beach. In fact, we couldn’t have missed it. The Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Hampton Roads coastal area is completely flat, an immense network of suburbs and shopping malls radiating from the original beach- and river-front towns, merging into one other without discernible boundaries. The irony of the area’s most prominent landmark being made of the inevitable by-products of suburban sprawl was not lost on us. Even more ironic are recent suggestions that the name "Mount Trashmore" be changed, as certain civic promoters do not feel it is sufficiently dignified.
On this cold and piercingly blue-sky bright morning, we stand in the parking lot adjacent to the lake and regard the birds. If the public obeys the sign, why are they here? Most numerous and loudest are the gulls, endlessly engaged in their internecine squabbles, periodically rising from the water in quarrelsome clumps. Is there, I wonder, a collective term for gulls? Let’s think: a bevy of quail, a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows... Perhaps an umbrage of gulls? What brings these creatures, symbols of the sea, so far inland?
If I could change this mouldy me,
By heaven! I would choose the lot,
Of all the gypsy birds, to be
A gull that spans the spacious sea.
"Grey Gull," Robert Service
The word "seagull," I have learned, is a misnomer. Gulls are not pelagic; that is, they do not live primarily out in open oceans or seas, as do shearwaters, albatrosses, terns, and petrels. They are coastal inhabitants, but venture far inland following the course of rivers and streams. Gulls are opportunistic scavengers; they go wherever the pickings are best. They are not dependent on a particular environment or food source, and they have few natural enemies. And, most importantly, they have been able to take full advantage of the habits of another highly successful species:
Gull populations have exploded along the Atlantic coast and elsewhere the past fifty years or so, mostly as a direct result of the human predicament. Gulls, of course, prosper when there is a plentiful source of garbage. Wherever new sources of food become available, their population steadily increases. A gull needs only fifteen minutes or so of earnest gorging at a fish processing plant, garbage dump, sewage plant, amusement park, or fast-food parking lot to supply its daily nutritional needs. The rest of the day, a gull is free to loaf where he pleases. ("Loaf," by the way, is the actual term employed by ornithologists to describe what a gull does when not eating, breeding, or roosting.) The usual loafing site is some pond or open expanse of grass not far from his food source. A grassy sports field or hillside park is an ideal place. Mount Trashmore, for example, is prime gull loafing territory, even without fresh garbage.
My husband and son are flying a kite on top of Mount Trashmore. As this artificial structure is the only hill for miles around, it provides a good, stiff, kite-flying wind even on a relatively calm morning. The city of Virginia Beach stretches out below us, but I’m looking up, not down. I am watching the kite dip and soar, but I am thinking about gulls.
Gulls are highly resourceful, built for versatility rather than specialization. They can drink both fresh and salt water, a trait they share with sea turtles, and are similarly equipped with glands that enable them to flush the salt from their systems through openings in their bills. Gulls learn quickly, and there are even some indications that they may share information on sources of food. They consume practically anything, alive or dead. They are not picky eaters.
While gulls are gregarious and form large colonies, they often exhibit as much or more antagonism toward members of their own species as toward others. They are a long-lived species, living as long as 40 years in captivity. In the wild there are frequent instances of cannibalism of eggs and chicks, as well as deaths resulting from defending territory from other gulls. Gulls are efficient thieves, snatching food from each other or birds such as pelicans. In fact, gulls have been implicated in the decline of other shore birds, such as plovers and terns. They thrive at the expense of less versatile and aggressive species.
We’ve come down from Mount Trashmore, on the side opposite the parking lot, to an elaborate play area known as Kid’s Cove. My son is on the cusp of being too old for this sort of playground, at least in the presence of his peers, but no one is here yet today to observe him, so he begs us to stay a while so that he can play. Not long after my husband and I arrange ourselves on a sunny bench nearby, a gull arrives.
Gulls, I reflect, don’t like us much. This gull perches on one of the wooden pylons that make up the "pirate fort" of the playground and dispassionately watches us with unwavering interest. Are we going to oblige him by having a picnic? We size each other up, the gull and I, and I admire his somewhat vicious beak, strong legs, and solid body. I have no idea what the gull is thinking, if anything, but I’m sure he doesn’t entertain romantic notions about how wonderful it is to be a human, whereas we have written poems, songs, and stories about the adventurous, freewheeling lives of gulls. This is one major difference between gulls and humans, regardless of what else we have in common.
The animals in our immediate environment are not really wild, so much as merely able to tolerate our presence. Our gardens and wooded suburban lots, for example, are virtual buffets for deer, whose populations have reached epidemic proportions in the sprawling suburbs that best suit them. In turn, the deer we hit with our cars become a different sort of buffet for vultures. Increasingly, the animals around us are those who can find a secure niche in a man-altered environment.
What is wildlife? Mostly we apply this term to the creatures frequenting our back yards or those that can be relegated to land unsuitable for development. The species that we don’t tolerate are known as pests, while those who actively court us are known as pets. Gulls have reached pest status in certain parts of the country, as the publication of manuals for gull control testifies. They contaminate water supplies, act as vectors for disease, and interfere with air traffic. And, of course, in many places they have simply become noisy, defecating nuisances.
Alfred Hitchcock knew a thing or two when he used gulls as the most threatening species in The Birds, but gulls, of course, are no more than bellwethers of the threat we pose to ourselves. On this lovely morning, sitting next to a buried mountain of trash, gulls momentarily become symbols to me, but not the symbols of freedom that once spanned the spacious seas in Robert Service’s poem. No, apart from themselves and in relationship to all others, gulls are symbols in the calculus of survival.