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Divorce, Sea-Gull Style : Sometimes Two Birds Just Can't See Eye to Eye Over Brooding Privileges

February 22, 1987|WILLIAM JORDAN | William Jordan is a Long Beach-based science writer.

It's a nice day on the Farallon Islands, west of San Francisco. The sun is out. The 50-degree wind is not vicious, only relentless. And the local residents are soaking up the unusual ambiance.

They are Western gulls that have laid claim to little pieces of rocky real estate--nesting territories--spacing themselves out in a more-or-less even pattern, the subdivisions creating a neighborly regularity. A lazy chorus of mewlings, yelps, "laughs" and keks rises from the colony, and the sounds blend into a sort of 12-tone sea-gull Muzak. Nearby, a large male sits quietly on his grass-on-rock nest, his white head and neck contrasting smartly with his black tux of a back. Occasionally he nibbles at a stone or a stray blade of grass and nods off in the sun with his breast pressed warmly against three freckled, buff-brown eggs. This domestic bliss is not destined to last long.

A series of loud, almost catlike wails breaks forth overhead, and a second gull, his mate, glides in for a landing. Judging from her exuberance, she seems to be emphasizing the fact that " I have arrived."

While this is going on, a biologist named Judith Hand sits in a small shack about six feet away armed with a tape recorder, binoculars and a notebook. She wears a parka to endure the wind that is driving through the observation port, and she has been here since dawn and will remain until dusk--to record every action, every sound that the 17 pairs of gulls in her study make with regard to their nesting duties.

But the scene continues. The female gull picks up a few leaves of dried grass, walks toward her mate and stands there, grass in beak, all the while making a mewing sound that to human ears sounds plaintive. The male ignores her and keeps sitting on the eggs. This is not what the female wants. So she squats slightly, tilts up her rear, lowers her breast and head, pumps her neck up and down and emits a choking, pumping sound as if she's gagging. A feeling of domestic tension is in the air.

The male, too, assumes a slight crouch and, stern up, bow down, chokes back to his mate--but even more emphatically. He does not want to relinquish the eggs.

She stands there a moment, as if contemplating this turn of events, drops her beakful of grass, turns and walks away.

About six minutes later, here comes the female again, more grass dangling from her beak like a sarcastic offering. More mewing, but more urgent. Another episode of choking with the male again refusing to leave. Again the female drops her bouquet and walks away.

Six minutes later still, and again she comes back, beak bristling with the obligatory grass, mewing with evident determination. This time she chokes with fearsome intensity. And this time, as though he realizes the show is over, the male gets up without reply and walks away. The female stands over the nest, fluffs her breast feathers to expose a naked patch of skin called the brood patch--which provides warmth directly to the eggs--and carefully settles down. As her skin presses onto the warm, smooth eggs she shakes her tail and tilts her head up, giving the impression that there is nothing in this world so infinitely pleasurable as brooding one's eggs, which for a sea gull there probably is not. It is worth a confrontation with one's mate.

To Judith Hand, however, there is much more going on here than a simple squabble over who gets the eggs. In higher animals (including wolves, monkeys, antelopes, seals--and gulls), the interaction known as dominance/submission creates a system for dividing up resources. As they compete for food or territory or mates, the bigger and stronger usually win and eventually establish dominance. This leads to the classic peck order, in which the top individual is able to take what he wants, when he wants. It also leads to a system in which the strongest survive, especially when times are hard, and pass on their genes. In extreme situations, dominance can be a harsh, tyrannical system that leaves little hope for the weak. Not surprisingly, most humans find the notion repugnant. And it may seem like a long leap from the sea gulls' little nesting plot to the capitals of nations, but the principles of dominance may well underlie the whole issue of political ideologies. Despots are in fact highly dominant. Political systems based primarily on dominance/submission are sometimes called dictatorships. At which point we will now return to Judith Hand and her observations on mated gulls.

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