Why Do Seagulls Have to Ruin a Perfectly Good Beach Day?

An examination of the most universally scorned creature on the planet — or at least the beach.

It’s the first beach day of the year at Salty Brine in Galilee, overcast but warm, and you haven’t packed much beyond some grapes, Goldfish and water. You lay out your blanket and hand your toddler the cracker container. She dumps all of the Goldfish into the sand. You cover them quickly, so as not to attract the seagulls.

They’ve already pillaged the blanket behind you. Its occupants went for a swim and left out snacks from the concession stand. Suckers. Speaking of the concession stand: You could really go for some chicken fingers and fries right about now. You trudge through the hot sand and place your order. A man’s name is called. He picks up his fries, still fragrant from the fryolator, and walks over to the condiment area. He pumps on some ketchup. A hovering seagull goes in for the kill. Fries scatter in the air like confetti. The man, shirtless and angry, hurls expletives toward the gray sky. He shakes his fist. He orders more fries. The bird lands nearby, ketchup visible on its beak. Your toddler watches in awe, mouth agape. Your name is called. You forego condiments.

You rush back to your spot and assemble the family in a circle around your haul. A clutch of seagulls moves in, and they’ve made a calculated decision to home in on your toddler. You, the mother bear, the protector, the purchaser of the snacks, stare down the biggest seagull of the bunch.

“Not today, seagull. Not today,” you growl.

seagulls

Illustration by katrina Kopeloff

They move toward a man eating a hoagie; he flings sand at them and they fly away. Moments later, a glob of pure-white guano lands on your shoulder, runs down your back and smears on your new Job Lot beach chair (“Margaritaville: It’s 5 o’clock somewhere!”). You wonder if you should’ve just forked over a fry.

Most everybody in the Ocean State has a seagull story — even avian advocate, Lauren Parmelee. Two years ago, she was sitting by the pavilion at Middletown’s Second Beach, eating a ham sandwich. Then, a great black-backed gull swooped in on the fly and thieved her lunch right out of her hand.

“I was like, ‘No, no, no! You can’t do that to me! I work for the Audubon!’ ” she says.

It was both extremely annoying and scary; the great black-backed gull — the largest of the three common gull species in Rhode Island — has a six-foot wingspan. The most abundant is the herring gull, which is slate-colored and smaller than the black-backed gull; the ring-billed gull is the most delicate of the bunch. To non-birders, they’re all just seagulls.

“These are opportunistic, savvy birds,” Parmelee, the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s senior director of education, says. “It’s quite amazing, if you look at it from a non-judgmental perspective. They’ve figured out how to be successful around humans. Not every species can do that.”

Modern gulls are physiologically adapted to eat a variety of foods, from fish to Doritos. So when we invade their natural territory — the beach — and we’ve brought delicious treats with us, there’s bound to be tension.

“They’re not only aggressive, they’re pushy and brave,” Parmelee says. “Gulls have figured out that humans are a food source. So part of it is on the human. Part of it is you should be smarter than the gull. They do know how to open coolers. Just be aware that when you walk away from your blanket, the birds are watching.”

Watching you, and each other too. Parmelee says gulls are in constant competition for food; they’ll even eat baby gulls from other nesting areas. They’re not community-oriented — the cannibalism really drives that point home — but gulls are fiercely protective of their nuclear unit and they mate for life.

“Both males and females make their nest together,” she says. “They both work to feed and protect their young.”

Gulls begin breeding in their fourth year, producing up to three chicks at a time. Fledglings often hang out with their parents for several months of learning. By the time they’re juveniles, with mottled gray or brown feather patterning, they strike out on their own.

“They are all watching each other to see who finds the food,” Parmelee says. “They’re just as likely to steal from another gull. It’s a strategy that works for the species.”

While some gulls are migratory — we’ll see laughing gulls, with their obnoxious calls and slick black facial coloring, in the fall — our gulls usually scavenge enough food to sustain themselves through winter.

“We’re so close to the ocean everywhere; inland is just a few flaps of the wing,” Parmelee says. “You see a lot of commuters. They’ll spend the night
off the coast of Scarborough Beach, fly inland, go to McDonald’s, have breakfast in the parking lot.”

Then, it’s lunch at the Johnston landfill and a night by the water in Warwick. Despite an abundance of food, Parmelee says the herring gull population declined between the 1960s and the mid-2000s. She credits this to the closure of community dumps, a major gull food source. She also says their reliance on human snack foods — unhealthy for them and for us — could have something to do with their decline, too.

“But nobody’s really worried about their population,” she says, adding that it’s leveled off in recent years. “If no one were allowed to go to Scarborough Beach, it would be covered in gulls nesting.”

That’ll never happen, though. Like the man on the moon or Putin in Crimea, we’ve driven our beach umbrellas into the sand, seagulls be damned. They’ve nested at Scarborough and Narragansett and Salty Brine for millennia and, astonishingly, they’ve learned to live with our seasonal annexation.

“Despite their annoyance, it’s you in their habitat bringing your food,” Parmelee says. “And it is important to remember that there is a legal and ethical reason — a social norm — that we don’t harm wildlife, even when they seem to be bullies. It’s their nature.”

She cites a case from 2017 when a nineteen-year-old Massachusetts man killed an airborne seagull with a rock on Misquamicut State Beach. A group of beachgoers was outraged and the Westerly police were summoned, eventually charging the man with killing a protected bird.

“All of the gulls and most birds in the United States are protected by law under the Migratory Species Act,” says Parmelee. “It is not legal to hurt or harass gulls, no matter how annoying they may be.”

Outside of hiding food and locking coolers, Parmelee offers this advice on how we might turn the tide on human-gull relations: “These are easy birds to see and observe and notice how beautiful they are and notice their behavior or interactions,” she says. “How often do you get that close?”

This, too: “You should not mess around with the big gulls. They are not afraid of you.”

You’ve just wrapped up a late-summer after-work swim — a perk of living fifteen minutes from Galilee — and you and your toddler are ravaged. You head to Jimmy’s Port Side, the clam shack across from the Block Island Ferry, for some quick fried snacks, a major food group of the summer. You order at the window and take a table on the back patio. Your daughter points to a formation of seagulls atop the Lighthouse Inn. Hitchcock’s The Birds comes to mind.

A friendly waitress brings over your burgers and fries and you scan the premises for vulnerable points of entry. You glance up and you’re surprised to see
a dozen shadowy pairs of webbed feet perched at the edge of the patio’s white canopy. So close, yet so far away. You eat and chat with your daughter about what she’d like to be for Halloween. She’s not yet three and doesn’t fully understand the concept, so she names the last thing she saw: a seagull. While looking at you in the eye, she thieves a fry from your plate. Appropriate.

Full and happy, you almost pity the birds above you. You think: They can do us no harm here. You throw a cold fry over the side of the canopy. Webbed feet skitter toward its center. The fabric groans under the weight of several birds vying for an easy dinner. Your daughter giggles, eyes a-twinkling, and asks you to do it again. You know it’s wrong to feed them, both for their health and for the sanity of beachgoers everywhere. You also know you won’t forget this night, just the two of you and the seagulls at dusk. You lob over another fry.

If ever you must invade seagull territory, Brad Craig has one nugget of advice: Carry a broom, and carry it high.

Here’s how Craig, who ran the iconic Lighthouse Inn of Galilee between 2009 and 2012, knows: Every so often, a drainage pipe on the inn’s roof — flat, perfect for nesting, out of reach of most predators — would clog up with seagull feathers, twigs, bones and droppings. If it accumulated, it ran the risk of flooding the entryway with the colony’s unholy detritus. So up to the rooftop Craig went, twice a month for four beach seasons.

“You could see them getting up and letting you know your presence was not welcome,” he says. “They would swoop near your head — buzz the tower, so to speak — to send the message: We don’t want you near the chicks. But if you held the broom up, they would perceive it as the top of your head and you were safe.”
Craig says the work was a little bit of man versus seagull, but they found a way to coexist.

“You had a protected sanctuary on one side of the building and had a cove on another side of the building,” he says, “all things that would make it seagull central.”
The guests were divided into two camps, Craig says: those who were grossed out by the seagull poop on their cars and annoyed by the early-morning squawking and those who took a roll-with-it attitude.

“When guests would check in we had a sign, ‘We apologize in advance on behalf of our seagulls,’ ” he says. “They won. You could try to keep up with maintaining it, but they were going to produce more challenges than you can keep pace with.”

Craig ran the place at the start of its downfall — “what we would affectionally call hard times,” he says — and he often met people who remembered its first incarnation as the Dutch Inn, which opened in the 1970s. The Cranston-based Procaccianti Group took over in 2005, when the Dutch Inn was threatened by receivership.

“More often than not, I heard stories reminiscing of better times for the property,” Craig says. “When I was there, I was limited in terms of what budget I had. It was more, do what you need to do in order to make the property run.”

Craig — a native Rhode Islander who grew up in Pawtucket — now runs a Holiday Inn Express in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. But he’ll never forget his first gig as a general manager.

“A young single guy managing a hotel by the beach sounds a lot more exciting than it turned out to be,” he admits. He spent less time chasing girls and more time chasing drunks and kids — and, yes, seagulls — out of the indoor pool area at night. But it was still a worthwhile experience.

The Lighthouse Inn, meanwhile, limped along for a few more years before shuttering for good in 2017. Since then, seagulls have had the run of the place. But all good things must come to an end. Last year, the Procaccianti Group submitted a request to the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management — which owns the land and leases it to the property development company — to raze the structure in its entirety. The plan? Pave seagull paradise and put up a parking lot.

The black, white and gray felt feathers have been cut and glued into wings. Yellow felt feet, too. The fuzzy white sweater and the yellow tights are laid out. The papier-mâché seagull hat has finally dried. Now, on the eve of All Hallow’s Eve, there’s only one task left: the eyes.

You want to get them right. You open your web browser, search “seagull” for inspiration and you’re immediately sucked into a Google Images vortex. There are seagulls stealing fries and sandwiches and even a cannoli. A seagull chomping into a perfect swirl of soft-serve ice cream. A seagull with a piece of toast stuck on its beak. A seagull that thieved a pair of false teeth. A controversial seagull sculpture in New Bedford. (It had breasts.) Seagulls picking fights with more formidable foes: an octopus, a bald eagle, a man bouldering up the side of a mountain. And the most disturbing of all: a seagull in flight swallowing a baby bird whole as its distraught mother gives chase.

You wonder what kind of parent you are, sending your child out to trick-or-treat as the most universally scorned creature on the planet — or at least at the beach. Really think this one over: Who among you will vouch for the seagull?

Sure, their opportunism is warranted. They’ve figured out how to thrive in the shadows of larger, better-snacked interlopers. We trample their beaches; they adapt. We demolish their rooftops; they adapt. Isn’t it commendable? Respectable, even? But the baby bird — oh, the baby bird! Truth be told, you’d rather have your daughter eat than starve. And that seals it: You are officially a horrible person, a seagull sympathizer and a societal scourge.

Alas, the time for contemplation is over. Halloween is tomorrow. You grab some acrylic paint and get to work on the eyes. Orange outline. Black at the edges. A sickly yellow sclera. And the beadiest, fiercest cornea your paintbrush will allow.

The next evening, you dress your daughter in her costume and she admires her reflection in the sliding glass door, flapping her wings and grinning. But something is missing. You fashion a piece of cardboard into a box shape, color it red and cut out some strips of yellow felt to tuck inside. You pin it to your daughter’s sweater.

There. She wouldn’t be a seagull without the fries.

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