It’s hot and it’s the Silly Season, which means the news is dominated by a minor spat on Twitter and a reversal of fortunes for England in the Ashes.
Not enough to make compelling copy for the Beano, let alone a national newspaper. However, a little improvisation is the art of writing for all seasons, so I’ve dug out a true story I wrote during my first period of living in Devon when we were right out in the sticks. It’s about a seagull.
For my pains I’ve become a surrogate parent to an orphan seagull. The youthfully-fledged youngster landed in our ancient high-walled kitchen garden yesterday. As I’m temporarily here alone, the burden has fallen entirely on me.
The female chick (you can tell by the shape of the head), which is as big as an adult bird, can’t yet fly, so probably fell off a rooftop and glided down into our patch. She keeps trying to fly up over the wall but can only manage a foot or two off the ground.
My first response was to leave the garden gate open in the hope she would find her way out. Alas, she viewed the opening with dark suspicion and eventually I closed it. It was time for Plan B.
The fact is, she’s never going to survive out there in her present state of infancy. Her mother has clearly abandoned her as a lost cause and doesn’t even come to feed her. A vet would say, leaving her to die might be the most “humane” course of action.
However, it occurred to me that if I could keep her alive for a few days, she might become strong enough to fly out under her own steam and find other gulls to protect her.
Yesterday, she had half my breakfast — a bacon sandwich — which she seemed to enjoy enormously. Hunger is a great leveller for a dainty palate. A tin of tuna fish went down well for lunch. I also discovered that if I leave the garden tap on slightly she will drink directly from the pipe.
She has also found a nest in a large pot with just a few seedlings growing in it. I’m afraid the white mess splattered around the garden is not going to win me any friends, but I figure it can’t be helped in the circumstances. She’ll soon be gone and rain will wash it all away. This is England, after all.
She trusts me implicitly now, as I’m the one who delivers her food and obviously means her no harm. I’m hoping she doesn’t imprint on me and imagine she’s a human being. The good news is that every time birds land in the garden she imitates their flying action. I won’t have to follow that chap in Ring of Bright Water and run around flapping my arms like a madman.
The poor thing has now injured her foot and is limping around the place like an invalid. The foot doesn’t seem to be broken, just strained in some way. She won’t let me touch it, though, and her razor-sharp beak is not something to treat lightly.
I’ve called her Rita. She doesn’t yet answer to it though.
Well, what drama there’s been here in rural Devon over the saga of Rita, the seagull chick. We’re not used to such excitement out here in the wild.
Last night, while it was still light, I heard a terrific commotion from the garden where she has been trapped for two days. Imagining a prowling tomcat dragging her away in his jaws, I rushed to her rescue. She was sitting as usual in the large pot she now calls “nest”, and shrieking gull-like at the high-end of her vocal range. Her cosy position didn’t suggest danger.
On the wall, about three yards away, stood a large, handsome, female herring gull, who was also giving vent to a torrent of gull-speak. Gulls never whisper. They always shout. They’re like old Shakespearean actors, trying to make themselves heard at the rear of the stalls. Before this incident, I’d never heard a peep from Rita. That must be a good sign.
The obvious psychic bond between them suggested that this was Rita’s mother. As soon as mum spotted me she majestically spread her surprisingly long wingspan and flew low and slow over the garden and away on the other side.
Now, the fleeting glimpse I’d got of her eyes told me that she had noted the bowl of food, and the obvious good condition of her chick, and was satisfied that she was safe for the moment. After all, not many gulls get waiter service and bread fried in green olive oil. We are the swanky end of the village.
It was clear that, in the conversation, something had passed between them. As soon as mum had gone, Rita popped out of her pot and started running up and down the garden, despite her injured foot, with her wings spread impressively wide. This was new behaviour and obviously came from the older bird.
Don’t tell me birds are stupid. Within the limits of their behaviour they’re as intelligent as humans, sometimes more so. You’d never send a gull to Oxford, but we would never dive into the sea and come up with a fish between our teeth. On their own patch, birds are as bright as Albert Einstein.
There was still a problem though. Rita was now charging full pelt, wings outstretched, up and down the garden. But in the middle sits a large, ungainly contraption which, paradoxically would make a good bird scarer.
Not for our Rita though, she shot past it at speed time and time again. I was afraid she might hit the thing and break a wing. Now that would be a disaster. So out I went and shifted it to a corner where it wouldn’t do any harm. Rita continued her frantic promenade until I left her for the night. And that was the conclusion of the evening’s drama.
I was up bright and early this morning — her third day in “captivity” — armed with my new digital camera. As she has now become a Syntagma celebrity — and they don’t come any bigger than that — a tasteful portfolio of photographs was a necessity.
Imagine my consternation on discovering she was nowhere in sight. I looked everywhere, under every tree and bush, in every slot and slit, fearing to find a bunch of feathers and the paw-prints of a cat. But there was no sign of a struggle and nothing in the lane either. The bird had flown.
The canny older bird had probably returned in the early morning and guided her prodigal offspring up, up, and away, back to herring-gull land, where the fish are fresher and the water dirtier than the stuff that comes out of my tap.
I have long known I would never make a press photographer. I always arrive too late.
The pity was I had missed my little chum’s first flight, her flight to freedom and the bosom of her family. Do seagulls have bosoms? Never mind. Rita had triumphed over adversity, and I had played a small part in the drama by keeping her alive for two days.
When my own wanderer returns next week and she asks me the inevitable question: “How did you get on for a whole week without me?” I shall reply, as nonchalantly as I can: “Very well, actually, Rita kept me company.”
Coming soon: Mystology: A different way of looking at the world
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