The Death of a Gull

JOHN J. ROWLANDS lives at the water’s edge at Cohasset,on the south shore of Massachusetts Bay. This glimpse of herring gulls and their ways is taken from his new book, SPINDRIFT, which Norton will publish in midsummer. A new Wilderness Edition of his delightful classic about the North Woods, CACHE LAKE COUNTRY, was brought out last December.

IN THE course of a week, here on the edge of the North Atlantic, we see thousands of gulls, the gray-winged herring gulls and great blackbacks from the Arctic and, in summer, the brown young herring gulls. We hear their fitful, uneasy calling in the hush before a storm in the night, and by day the sudden excited clamor when they sight a school of fish. We watch them soaring on fixed wings at the height of a gale, responding to every twisting trick of the wind in faultless mastery of flight. And we see them dozing on the ledges on a quiet day. Yet we seldom see a dead gull. We find feathers, to be sure, and once in a while a wing, but very rarely a dead bird. Some say the sea rats get them before we ever have a chance to find them. Maybe so.

Only once in all my years by the sea have I seen a dying gull. It was on a warm and windless summer afternoon that. I noticed a big herring gull on the highest point of the great barrier ledge that lies between us and the sea. It was resting, breast to the rock, and its head was bowed in the way of an old man sleeping his measured time away. Now and again the bird struggled to its feet and took a few unsteady steps, only to sink to the rock again.

Anyone who has shared the sea with the gulls knows that while at rest on the water or on land the birds invariably face into the wind. As weather vanes, they often give a truer reading than the mechanical vane, which may swing with the slightest variation in air currents. The gull on the rock had its back to the wind, and I knew then that only a very sick bird would fail to respond to one of its strongest instincts. It was less than two hundred feet away, and through my glass I could see that its eyes were closed most of the time and its bill rested on the rock.

During the afternoon, little by little, it moved toward the rim of the ledge and down the sloping face toward the water. Late in the day the big black-and-white cat that patrols our shore in search of mice discovered the sick bird and set up a death watch, lying belly to the ground, slowly inching forward until I drove it away.

At sunset the gull was resting on a point of rock that would be close to high water at the next tide. The time would be a few minutes after midnight. Now, in that last surge of life before death, it was facing into the light northerly breeze; its head had lifted a little, and it seemed to be looking out to sea.

That afternoon no gulls came near our point. The solitary loon that winters just off the shore was no longer there, and the cormorants that ordinarily sit on Round Rock, their wings widespread to dry, were missing. The gulls that we usually see flying westward along the edge of the water late in the day took a course offshore.

I have heard that dying creatures instinctively seek seclusion to await the moment of death. It seemed that, in avoiding our shore, the gulls were giving the sick one the privilege of privacy and the dignity of death alone.

I kept my glass on the bird at intervals until darkness drew a curtain on the ledges. During the night the wind shifted to the northeast, and a cold damp breeze made an extra blanket comfortable. I wondered what had happened to the gull.

The light of sunrise brought the answer. It was lying, wings outstretched, at the high mark of the midnight tide, as if it had made an effort to start the last flight. We wondered whether instinct led it to move down the ledge to meet the incoming tide that had nourished it in its vigorous days and now would bring it peace.

Before the sun was very high the gulls were flying over the shore ledges again as though nothing had happened. Death for a gull had come and gone, and the time for dying alone was over.