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Pity the Seagull

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A Saracen shooting a seagull in Marino Sanudo's Secreta fidelium Crucis>/em>, c.1321-24.

A Saracen shooting a seagull in Marino Sanudo’s Secreta fidelium Crucis, c.1321-24.

Northumbria police have launched an investigation after a photo was posted on Facebook of a man apparently strangling a seagull. Councillors in seaside towns are considering using drones to kill seagull chicks in their nests. Although the numbers of most gull species in the UK are in decline, they have an ‘increasing presence in urban areas’. The RSPCA is looking into reports that people in Cornwall are attacking gulls with fishing line. Meanwhile the birds have been accused of attacking people and killing pets, and in Namibia they’ve been spotted pecking out the eyes of baby seals, as if they weren’t already hated enough.

But disliking seagulls is nothing new. The speaker of the The Seafarer regrets that he has only the calls of the sea-mew (the Old English word for seagull) for entertainment instead of mead-drinking: ‘mæw singende fore medodrince’. In another Old English poem, Andreas, seagulls aren’t only a disappointing beer-surrogate but a sinister omen: one circles over St Andrew’s boat, greedy for carrion (‘wælgifre’).

Protestantism did further damage to the gull’s reputation. One of the unclean birds listed in Deuteronomy Chapter 14 appears as larum in the Vulgate. English translators weren’t sure what to make of it. The Wycliffite Bible hedged its bets and called the bird a ‘lare’. William Tyndale translated it as ‘cuckow’. But the Geneva Bible went for ‘seagull’. Henry Ainsworth, in his 1627 Annotations on the Bible, called it ‘a bird of a greedy and ravenous kind’.

Perhaps influenced by the Geneva Bible, the 17th-century physician Tobias Venner advised against eating the bird. In his 1620 guide to living a long life, Via Recta ad Vitam Longam, Venner wrote: ‘The seagull is to be rejected as all other kinds of flesh of a fishy savour: for he is of a very ill juice, and is not only unpleasant, but also very offensive to the stomach.’ Venner may not be the most reliable guide: in a treatise on tobacco smoke, he recommended smoking as an aid to digestion and protection against pestilent airs. And John Stafford, the Bishop of Bath and Wells (d.1452), would have disagreed, as he served seagull at a feast he held in September 1425, as well as roasted venison, curlews and swan.

Depictions of seagulls in medieval and early modern art are rare. In the decorative margin of an early 14th century manuscript produced in Venice, now housed in the Bodleian Library, there is an image of a seagull. A Saracen appears to be shooting at it with a bow and arrow.

The word ‘gull’ doesn’t appear in English until the late medieval period, and it’s origins are unclear. It’s probably a loan-word from the Cornish guilan or Welsh gŵylan. But in the early modern period, the seagull suffered from its homonyms, particular the verb meaning ‘to deceive’. Whether or not the noun and the verb derive from a common root, they were linked in the minds of some lexicographers, including Dr Johnson.

The hate may have a long history, but it hasn’t been universal. In Dafydd ap Gwylim’s 14th-century Welsh poem Yr Wylan the seagull is an emissary of love, which the poet begs to carry a message to his red-haired beloved (a more effective romantic gesture than shooting one and presenting its corpse as a gift, as Konstanin does in Chekhov’s play). So pity the seagull: not only a modern pariah, but disdained by Protestants, loathed by the Anglo-Saxons, shot at by Saracens and eaten by bishops.

Comments on “Pity the Seagull”

  1. Geoff Roberts says:

    Crows don’t do much better. Pigs have been having a hard time of for years, even if Christians enjoy consuming their flesh in all forms.

  2. Roy says:

    “Seagulls”. At least try to get it right. The problem in most seaside towns is quite specifically the aggressive behaviour of Herring Gulls. Other common gull species are still sufficiently wary of people to have not become a problem. Which Herring Gulls most certainly are.
    Where I live on the South Coast these birds are completely fearless due to the extraordinary foolishness of people deliberately feeding them. This idiocy, combined with the anthropomorphic delusions of the average urban dweller, has led to the situation becoming acute. Most of the Herring Gulls I encounter locally wouldn’t recognise a Herring if they saw one – assuming there were any Herring out in the channel these days, whereas most of them can identify a Pizza slice from half a mile away. It’s lucky we don’t have bears in this region.
    One facet of Herring Gull behaviour which is both unnatural and extremely annoying is that they have become as active at night as during the daytime – only far, far, noisier. It’s almost impossible to sleep with a window open without being kept awake by the hideous screaming of these birds.
    Just to put this in context I’m a member of an ornithological society and a non-obsessive bird-watcher.

  3. DawnRaven says:

    In support of Roy I also emphasize that a clear distinction be made among species of gulls. The generic term “seagull” can easily be applied to many seabirds, and indiscriminate methods of “bird control” may destroy declining as well as pest species.
    However, the herring gull is a cosmopolitan problem. I live in Canada (Montreal) in the St. Lawrence River basin area, and here too these gulls now flock far inland. Our downtown city streets, parks, and vacant lots are filled with them. They are omnivorous, adaptable, social, and highly aggressive birds. Successful new behaviours by individual members can apparently be imitated and spread rapidly among local populations.
    Despite my cautionary first comment, the herring gull explosion has no doubt contributed to the displacement and destruction of many other species: They are notorious nest-robbers and killers of fledging birds and animals. But the problem goes far beyond naïve bird-feeding and has grown proportionate to the dumping and scattering of vast amounts of organic garbage, compost, and even sewage throughout urban and agricultural areas. Our civilization is a scavenger’s paradise.
    Many years ago, in Montreal’s Dominion Square, I idly dropped a piece of muffin and was amused when a gull landed nearby to gobble it up. I pulled off a few more small chunks and tossed them out. My Mary Poppins reverie was abruptly shattered by the arrival of dozens of squawking gulls supported by still more wheeling vulture-like overhead. Spotting the remaining muffin clutched in my hand, two or three large birds stuck out their necks, dropping their reptilian heads into threat posture, and advanced upon me with open hooked beaks, screeching, the massed flock following up behind. I wildly threw the muffin to them and fled in terror. It would have been an interesting experiment, I now suppose, had I lain down with the morsel poised on my face.
    But we should hardly blame the ferocious, tough herring gulls when we are victimized by our own excess, ignorance, and sentimental self-deception. The survivor takes it all.

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