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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Gulls, crows, and food

by Jamie Lutton

I had seen him before, last year. I never knew his name, not then or now.  He was in the alley behind Charlies (an eatery, for those of you unfamiliar with Seattle,) digging in the dumpster, pulling food scraps out, and putting them into plastic bags. I watched him for a while; then I asked him what he was up to. He told me offhandedly that he fed the birds.

I did not see him again until last night, at dusk, when I looked up on my way home and saw dozens of gulls in the sky making a racket just behind Dick's Drive-in. This drive-in has a pretty large parking lot behind it, an alley, and other parking lot. In the dusk, I saw this same man again, with a large tall wheeled suitcase in front of him, surrounded by gulls, on the ground and in the air.

 The street rang with the cries of nearly a hundred hungry gulls, all focused on this man and what he was doing, all creek-creeking in hunger, circling overhead, and landing in front of him. More and more arrived, and landed, as he threw out more food.  Crows have nothing on the sound of that many gulls, flying overhead and hop-walking in front of this man; who they seemed to know well.  It was a crashing loud cacophony,  with so many gull voices calling at once. hungrily and repeatedly.

I know that it is a common thing to be able to summon a few gulls down by the water, when eating fish and chips; a gull or seven will show up to catch fries when they are thrown. But  this was an navy of gulls, like many, many noisy sheep with wings hopping about on the dark, dirty pavement in the growing March dusk.
The birds surrounded this man on the ground, all facing him. He would twist one way, then another, spinning in a slow circle, throwing out messy, nasty  looking bready food bits. As the food was thrown they would cry even louder, hoping up half airborne to catch the food as it was thrown, jostling each other out of the way to catch the bits in the air.  I did a head count of the gulls on the ground and in the air; at least 80 of them, and more than one species, though most were standard gulls. The gulls were very intent, very serious about getting food; they stood shifting from one webbed leg to another, flapping their wings now and then, staring very intently at the man and his black suitcase.

I realized that to feed a bird that large they must have to be constantly eating large amounts of garbage and effluvia, and fly very far.  There were far more gulls than I am used to seeing in the neighborhood;  the gulls, like the crows, must  call out loudly to their friends in distant parts of the city that there is a feed going on when he began to throw out bready treats last evening.

The man was a diminutive black man, not that much older than me, and down at heels in his appearance. Perhaps homeless; I could not be sure.  I could see what had brought him to dig food out of the trash (as I assume he did ) to feed these trash-eating birds.  The birds see you, and talk to you, if only while the food lasts, surrounding you like so many manic puppies on wings.  It is a tremendous experience, so many, many gulls in one place, crying out for food scraps. I had a sudden fierce wish that I could go to the ocean-side, and hear and see the waves, after seeing and hearing so many gulls. I could almost smell the ocean in the loud cries they were making. 


I don't think I thought of this guy when I started to feed crows, I had not thought of him at all since I caught him at a dumpster, until I saw him last night.  I had a single crow follow me to work part way for over a year, hopping onto the ground,flying just in front of me. I would say to him every day that I was sorry I had nothing for him. I recall I would even feel in my pockets at the time, to see if I had any food bits, but I never would have anything.

I was in a dark world; summer, spring, winter and fall were all alike to me for years, decades; only when I was at work and books were in front of me did I wake up, and register the world. The seasons did not matter to me, nor rain or sun, just my work handling books. I generally have a lonely existence; only a cat and a few distant relatives to call family, only a few friends.. But one crow, persistent, kept asking for food nearly  every morning. And then, as I have reported here, one other crow dropping a chewed on chicken leg nearly on my head, perhaps, I think, to ask (again) for food.

That is what made me finally get treats for the crows; having a chicken leg hit the sidewalk, and looking up, seeing a smug crow who had gotten me to look, me to look...

The crows will sweep you into their world with the smallest invitation; the important invitation of  feeding them.  They will then do acrobatics for you, flying over your head, looping great loops in the sky, or flying (always approaching from the rear!) over your shoulder,  right over your head -(so close you can hear the wings stroke) by your side, then fly up, soaring, landing in a tree or on a wire, and stare down at you, to let you know they are there, there, there and they are hungry    When one crow arrives, and you feed it, you realize that the trees and wires and buildings must all have eyes; as one crow is suddenly ten, twenty, and they are all there, there, there, and all hungry, hungry, hungry, hungry...up in the trees, down on the sidewalk, like a quick sudden moving snowfall, of clumps of black  crows.

Sometimes a gull or three would crash the party, when I was on a back street;: the crows would keep their distance as they were five times the size of the crows, and just as territorial. Often several  gulls would swoop down and steal a treats I meant for the crows, walking on the ground amid the crows they seem like pale giants.  Suddenly, the crows would  fly away and abandon me, to disappear into a tree or around the corner, to 'fake out' the gulls into thinking I had no more food left.  I would keep walking, and the crows fly over and meet me, just a half a block north, having (usually) faked the gulls out. Then, we would go back to playing catch together. 

Watching crows fly is the most fun; watching them pay catch with treats is the second most fun; the only hitch is the trouble in telling them apart; I mostly can tell the skinny shy young ones from the fat and fatter confident old ones, who think nothing of getting fairly close to me. I can't even be sure at who I am looking at, from time to time, even though I know the same birds visit me over and over. I will have to try harder to find a way to tell them apart; maybe by looking at their feet.


I sometimes see old leg bands on some birds, and wonder who is tracking them and tagging them. I hope that they treat the birds right;  and that it is for some good purpose.  Tagging traumatizes them so; handling a wild bird  to tag it oftentimes will put it into a state of shock and bewilderment; this has been observed after the birds have been let go.

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