Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Yr wylan deg: seagull nursery time

Gull, n.
Etymology: Perhaps < Welsh gŵylan, Cornish guilan = Breton goelann (whence French goëland), Old Irish foilenn (modern Irish faoileann) < Old Celtic *voilenno-; compare Breton goelaff to weep.

"Yr wylan deg ar lanw, dioer ..."

The poet Dafydd ap Gwilym wrote his famous poem to the seagull in the fourteenth century. It's really not about the seagull, of course, but about the lady to whom the gull is free to fly, whereas he is not. Centuries later, the gull is an all-too-familiar presence in Wales, including in inner Cardiff, and for a few weeks this summer we had the mixed pleasure of finding ourselves living in a seagull nursery, as after an absence of some years a gull pair decided that our street, with its high but unused Edwardian chimney pots, is an ideal place for the rearing of seagull young (it isn't).
The first high pitched cries of the young chick were heard at the beginning of June, and a tiny head could be seen sticking out on the roof of a neighbour's house. So far, so good: however, seagull chicks hatch apparently already able to walk, but unable to fly, and the tiny amount of space among the chimney pots is wholly inadequate for the next stage. Sure enough, very soon the small fluffy one had reached the ground (how? do they just float down somehow?) and was now in someone's back garden, with its parent still settled on the roof, about 30' higher up. In no time at all, it found its way out of the back garden (where it was safe from cars but not from cats) and eventually round to the busy street, where it took up residence, mainly sitting in the gutter, on the pavement, and in the road.
Having had an unsuccessful episode of seagull rearing in the street before, we knew more or less what to expect - but I had certainly forgotten aspects of human behaviour which gulls inspire (even small fluffy brown ones which look more like ducklings). At a rough guess, I would say that the country is divided absolutely and forever on the subject of seagulls, rather like Brexit. 48% of us seem to be able to co-exist with them, whereas the other 52% really hate them. The internet is full of rants about seagulls and suggestions for getting rid of them: firms offer (illegally) to exterminate chicks. The press regularly carries stories about gull-on-human attacks (I won't name names for likely newspapers, but let's just say there seems to be a common thread here: think, fear - whether of groups of "other" people, various, or wild birds or animals. Squirrels come in for quite a bit of negative attention too).
Seagulls are noisy, they make a mess on your laundry, head and car, and they will swoop at you if they perceive you as a threat, but they do not, in fact, usually actually attack you. They don't like small dogs, small children, or men in hard hats. The presence of a chick in the vicinity ups the likelihood of diving, and it seems that many people do not recognise the young for what they are and do not realise that the big white bird is angry because they are going too close to an apparently unrelated brown one. However much you might dislike wildlife in general, and this sort in particular, chicks and birds with young should be left well alone. They are protected by law, and you not liking them isn't a good enough reason for disturbing them. (There's more information about the legal position here). It's not easy to identify the young ones but after observing the adults I think ours are lesser black-backed gulls (so, not particularly endangered, but their numbers are falling).

Gwylaneg = Gullish
Not in the OED! but gulls definitely communicate with each other and have a number of different cries which, living right in the middle of them, we found we were getting to know. There's a quacking, which sometimes seems to be a gentle alert (e.g. from the parent to the chick, if I left the house - just to let him know that someone was coming, but not a full-on warning of danger); the cries with which they maintain contact with each other; the full head-thrown-back shout; the very high-pitched and insistent sound which the chicks make; and the quite different sounds the adults make when there is immediate danger or threat (partly distress and partly intimidation). We soon learned to recognise, and respond to, this one, as it is quite different from usual gull talk.
During the next few weeks we had our sleep disturbed late at night by the terrible cacophony of one of the adult birds as two men who were old enough to know better danced around in the road throwing sticks and stones at it and tried to catch it as it swooped - possibly unaware of the nearby chick, of course, but FFS! (as they say) - quite apart from unnecessary provocation, how about some consideration for people trying to get to sleep? On another evening the same noise turned out to be reaction to a boy of around 13 stalking the chick with a huge stick, also quite late at night. I spent some time talking to him and eventually, reluctantly, he gave up, insisting that "I'm not going to hurt it" (huh? what was the big stick for then?). Seagulls seem to settle down for the night at around 10 p.m., unless people are throwing things at them or threatening their young.
Not everyone hates seagulls, but those who don't can be a bit of a threat too, unintentionally: some people want to take the chicks away and "save" them, but even though one has to agree that a busy urban street is a bad place for a chick, removing it from its parent is not a good idea. (The parents tend to stay up on the rooftops and don't spend very much time down on the ground with the young, but if you are at close quarters with them you will know that the chick has not been abandoned. Feeding often takes place last thing at night or early in the morning). I ended up having a long chat with a nice lady with a lidded bucket who wanted to take the chick to a vet. "He is being attacked by the other seagulls", she said. (No, they are attacking you because you are trying to take their baby away in a bucket ...) Amazingly she accepted my point and the chick stayed put under the watchful eye of the parents.
About two weeks after arriving on the ground, the chick was joined by another, smaller chick. We guessed that they were from the same nest but not the same age. It was at this point that even the hardest anti-gull heart would begin to melt - surely? - because it became obvious that the two liked each other's company and that gull chicks are probably never meant to be on their own on the ground waiting to fledge. The bigger one looked to sentimental humans like a proud older brother showing his younger sibling his new school. They waddled around everywhere together, snuggled up to each other to sleep, and started doing sensible things like spending the night on doorsteps (instead of in the road).

Sadly, the big brother wasn't able to prevent the little one from wandering out under the wheels of a van pulling away from its parking spot a few days later. It was interesting, if distressing, to watch the reaction of the survivor, and its parent whom it summoned: again, while not wishing to be super-anthropomorphic about it and ascribing human emotions to birds of, presumably, very little brain, both birds displayed agitation and then what seemed like grief, bending their heads down so that their beaks were vertical to the ground and staying motionless like that for a short while.The adult flew off, low, but the chick wandered about with its head down for days, going back every now and then to look at the remains and even moving the dead one off the road.
Just a few days later, one morning we saw the chick sitting on a gatepost, having finally got off the ground (earlier attempts were funny to watch - jumping up and down on the spot flapping its wings), and a few days later still he was seen flying low over the road, as if it were the sea. In fact I wondered whether the gulls think of the road as a version of the sea, as the young one also tried several times to settle down right in the middle for the night. It had not yet had the chance to experience landing on water, yet its behaviour around the water put out for it to drink suggested that it wanted to get in. We did not put any food out for it, reckoning that it seemed to be growing without it and, however gross we found the regurgitative process by which the adult transfers food to its young, felt that they probably knew what they were doing.
The silence in the street on the Sunday morning after seeing the chick flying along the road was eerie and unnerving. Early in the morning we had heard a great deal of seagull vocalising, high up above the street rather than close at hand, but could see nothing. There was no sign of any of the group, and for several days it stayed like that (not wholly quiet, in fact: the magpies and crows which had been keeping a low profile soon started to reappear). This time, at least, there was no mangled feathery corpse anywhere to be seen. The absence of seagull noise made me realise how much their sounds had become the background to everything, and also how alert we had been made by them, looking out all the time for dangers, chasing the chick out of the road, and so on. We convinced ourselves that the chick had flown (although I did start to wonder about sparrowhawks, which have been seen in inner Cardiff preying on smaller birds). Nearly a week later, the family returned, parents back on their usual chimneypots and - yes - the fully fledged brown juvenile seagull up there on the roof with them. I felt as proud as if I had taught him to fly myself!
They are still visiting occasionally (especially on bin day) but seem to be spending most of their time elsewhere. The young one's cry is still the insistent high-pitched shriek of the young, and he is a bit clumsy landing on the roof, but he has otherwise mastered his beautiful brown wings and soars above the rooftops. While the adults do come down to the ground the young one hardly ever does. I wish the other little one could have joined him up there, having spotted a few other more complete family groups with young ones sociably sticking together, but at least he made it in spite of all the odds.

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