Caught by the River

On Seagulls and Crows

13th February 2015


by Brian Manton

A certain unease has settled into my bones. I’ve lived in Swansea for three years, but I still regard them with caution—the herring gulls. I have no anecdotes of personal skirmishes, but I’ve seen things, man, I’ve seen things, and I’m not foolhardy enough to expect to escape forever. These beefy white Jack Russell sized brutes harry around Castle Square marking opportunity with clinical yellow eyes. They are aggressive, their pecking order is founded on physical strength, and they mob anyone they don’t like the look of. They are schoolyard bullies. Perpetual fourteen-year-old boys.

The gull is newly adapted to urban living. The 1956 Clean Air Act started it off. Landfills were no longer permitted to burn waste and the flotilla was soon upon them. Less fish, more fish and chips. These days, they won’t wait for you to discard your leftovers. Case in point, Gregory Gull of Oxford Street. I’ll see him on the flat roof of Greggs bakery, perched and sniper patient. You won’t see him at all. A haphazardly held pasty is Tommy Coopered from your hands. The shoppers exiting Poundland point and laugh as you try to comprehend the previous five seconds. I don’t laugh. This isn’t funny.

These gulls have taken to city life better than I ever will. They are in Christmas shopping mode all year round. Everything is urgent and mine, mine, mine. Birds of prey were employed in pest control attempts but the raptors were found to be more at risk than the gulls themselves. The spirit of the Welsh dragon is alive and well in these beasts. As much as I hate to admit it, they’re here to stay. An occupation of gulls. The Swansea incursion complete. Their flag a white spatter on a field of pavement grey.

One small comfort—the magpies do not seem phased by the incumbent gulls. I’ll often see a tithing of three or more, or a charm of just two. In Ireland, the sorrow of a solitary Magpie is still regarded with a half-remembered awe. Superstition would have you squeal, “Hello Mr. Magpie,” while spinning on your heel three times, holding an elbow and waving with the other hand. I’m a sensible grown man, so obviously I don’t do this. I just nod in his direction and mutter “Well, how’r ya?” under my breath—a Pascalian wager. Once, from a passing car, I glimpsed a massive congregation of these birds dotted through with a clamour of rooks. The grassy flatland field had become an amphitheatre centred on a pair of magpies in vicious combat. I’d have bought tickets for that.

I miss the crow. The odd one will venture into the town centre and brave the gulls, but I mostly see the carrion crows stalking the grass in Singleton Park. It’s a species of corvid not found much in Ireland but the sight still makes me homesick. On my last trip home, the windscreen of my bus was wing swept by a train of jackdaws on an aerobatic spree. I watched them spin out over the rooftops. Many ancient cultures saw crows as scriers of fate. The black fortunes of a hundred citizens circled over Wexford town.

Perhaps my disdain for the Swansea gull comes from some genetic predisposition. I would not be the first Irishman to lash out instinctually. Politician Ned O’Sullivan, speaking in Dublin where they also suffer the herring gull, said that they had “lost the run of themselves completely.” He seemed to share in my worries but, perhaps, lost the run of himself a bit in saying that “they are not seagulls in the true sense of the word.”

The gull will remain, to me, a reminder of the absence of the crow. I long for the chak-chak reverie of jackdaws at close of day, when the sky half-tones with a clatter of hundreds returning to roost and, as they settle, the trees grow darker against the yawning clouds.

Hitchcock worried about the birds all ganging up on us. I’m not sure they’d need to. If there’s ever a Planet of the Apes style avian uprising, despite the crows’ intelligence, I think it’s the gulls we need to fear most. They’re bigger, they’re meaner and they may have already started. When it comes to seagulls and crows, if I had my way, I’d choose murder over occupation.