Pounding waves, ferocious gales, exceptionally high tides and floods. It’s not the way most folk would want to greet the New Year but 2014 has certainly started with something of a bang with pictures on our screens of mountainous waves crashing on to shores and people being rescued from their houses by boat. I suppose that when one compares such events with recent disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis that have happened elsewhere in the world, the events of the last few weeks here are put into perspective. Our problems, according to the experts, stem from a jet stream high above us that is travelling at something like twice its normal speed, sucking up storms on its way and hurling them in our direction!
There were one or two remarkable moments that caught my eye during those telecasts, which featured gulls defying those precipitous waves and the raging gales as they flew with their wig-tips within inches it seemed of the boiling sea, in and out of the giant, ever moving troughs. They gave a very clear impression of deliberately flying in the very face of the worst of the storms with complete aplomb and even disdain. Indeed, they seemed to be scorning the vile conditions. There was as far as I could make out, no other explanation for this startling reaction to such violent conditions, than that they were accepting the challenges placed before them by nature and defiantly playing with them in response.
I could only liken their behaviour to that of those humans who also see such conditions as a challenge to be faced and conquered. In the same way I guess, the fearless band of surfers who ventured out into those fearful conditions to buck the trend, or those brave former soldiers who despite their injuries, garnered from conflict, walked to the South Pole. It is I guess, part of the human psyche to challenge; to triumph over that kind of adversity … just for the sake of doing it. That’s why people scale precipitous mountains I guess, or sail single-handedly round the world, or enjoy white water rafting and a whole range of other activities that pit them against the most dangerous of elements.
But the spectacle of gulls challenging those atrocious conditions puts an entirely different perspective upon why they should dedicate themselves to such outrageous and apparently dangerous antics. That such activities should inevitably fall under the heading of ‘play’ seems to contradict the notion that the main pastime of most creatures is sheer survival. It further follows that creatures taking time out from the mundane routine of surviving, to make time to play, must be so good at the former as to have time available for the latter!
Furthermore, these remarkable displays, which incidentally exhibit absolutely brilliant flying skills are, I believe, also a pointer to high intelligence. For many creatures, play is part of the growing up procedure and is, when analysed, clearly a vital part of the learning process. Fox and badger cubs play … endlessly. Much of their play is manifested in play fighting which even at a young age, firmly establishes a pecking order amongst siblings. I have even seen fox and badger cubs play together, an activity, which perhaps goes against the grain with badger parents which are fastidiously clean - a trait nothing like as evident among foxes!
Gulls are versatile birds. A century ago, the sight of gulls living inland, far from the sea, would have been a relatively rare sight. They are designed as marine creatures and that is where by and large, they lived … until they discovered easy living inland. Perhaps this ‘migration’ may be seen as a commentary on our modern day ‘throw away’ society, for it was undoubtedly our escalating mountains of waste, containing more and more edible material, that encouraged gulls to make that change in their lifestyle. Now gulls are truly universal!
Gulls by nature are scavengers – opportunistic feeders – and quite naturally they have prospered from our increasingly profligate way of life. Some of course contend that the gulls have gone too far with the increasing boldness of the birds in literally snatching food from the mouths of babes – and adults – stealing the likes of ice creams and take away meals out of our very hands. But then by their very nature gulls live by their aggression, with larceny – thieving - to many of them, a way of life, stealing food from a host of other birds at every available opportunity … and now, increasingly, from humans too it seems!
However gulls are clearly intelligent. Their methods of defeating the defences of shell fish are interesting, for often they will carry their victims high in the sky before dropping them on to rocks below in order to crack or break their shells and gain access to the succulent meat within. Their athletic flying displays – also so often, surely a form of play and self expression - are always on view and indeed, their skimming over the surface of our local freshwater loch provides a daily exhibition of their considerable skills. They have an unquenchable propensity to play, if not necessarily with each other, then instead, with the elements.
The more pragmatic and serious side of their nature and indeed, their eye for an opportunity, are clearly evident when a farmer begins to plough. Within minutes of starting to turn over the soil, his tractor has immediately gained a trail of accompanying hordes of gulls, eager to profit from the excavation of countless invertebrates upon which to feast. There may not have been a gull to be seen in the vicinity but the minute the work begins, there they are! The word apparently travels very quickly!
The seemingly death defying swooping of gulls – for fun - in stormy weather may provide us with a surprising spectacle but the most obvious display of fun loving behaviour I think I ever saw came from a family of otters some years ago. It had snowed and they had created a slide in the snow on the river-bank down which, much to my amazement, they repeatedly slid into the river, swimming quickly back to the bank, scrambling up and sliding back down into the water time and time again. There were two adults and two well-grown cubs and they kept their game going for at least half an hour. If the youngsters were clearly enjoying the game, so too were the adults, which suggests that otters, even in their dotage, never quite grow out of the spirit of play.
Maybe otters do it for fun whilst gulls do it for kicks!