Bird Totems of Venice: The Gull

By Krista Schwimmer
If there is one seabird that defines a shoreline, it is the gull. Prolific, noisy, pesky and personable, the gull appears in a variety of cultures as hero, trickster, or villain. Sailors say it is unlucky to kill a gull as it could be the soul of a dead sailor returned. Native Americans believe that a flight of gulls wheeling high in the sky indicates a storm is coming.
There are around 28 species of gulls, with at least 22 of them either residing in or visiting North America. Part of the family Laridae, these birds are most closely related to terns. Although known by many as seagulls, birders call them gulls, as most feed inland. They are medium to large, grey or white birds with black markings on their heads or wings.They range in size from the Little Gull, with a body length of 12 inches and wingspan of 24 inches to the Great Black-backed Gull with a body length of 30 inches, and wingspan in the mid-60s. Not surprising, these scavengers are the least speciali

zed feeders of all seabirds, gathering their food through hunting in air, on water, or on land.
Gulls are long lived. One Herring Gull was documented as living 49 years. They are also, curiously, monogamous for life. Now and then, a pair may “divorce”. This, however, is frowned upon by the pair’s colony. The happy couple breeds once a year, with a breeding season of three to five months. The number of eggs range from one to three, depending on the species of gull. Both sexes incubate the eggs. Females even form bonds with other females to help raise the young.
Most species of gulls have black wingtips aiding in resistance to wear and tear. The Tsimshian of Alaska say the reason for these tips was that when a Raven caught the gulls eating all of his food, he threw them in the fire, singeing their feathers.
Because of their inter-breeding and change in plumage, gulls are not always easy to identify. Walking along the Pacific Ocean here in Venice, some of the species you may find are: the Black-legged Kittiwake, the California Gull, the Great Black-backed Gull, Heemann’s Gull, the Herring Gull, the Mew Gull, Thayer’s Gull, and the Western Gull.
Like other birds, gulls have great eyesight, due to an extra cone in their eyes that allows them to see infrared. A gull looking at a blue sky actually sees a violet one. They can drink seawater due to a special pair of glands right above their eyes that flushes the salt out through openings in their bills. Some people see them as pests – and they certainly will steal your picnic food if left unattended; but they serve an important role as scavengers, cleaning the environment of dead animals and litter. In many countries, too, they are protected by wildlife conservation laws.
Those of you who lived through the ’70s most likely remember one of the most famous literary gulls of all times: Jonathon Livingston Seagull. In 1970, Richard Bach published “Jonathon Livingston Seagull.”With fewer than 10,000 words, and black and white photographs by Russell Munson, Bach’s allegory on death and the after life became a bestseller. Hardcover sales broke the record set in 1936 by “Gone With the Wind”. The author had a unique background in flying, having served in the United States Navy Reserve, later in the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 108th Fighter Wing, 141st Fighter Squadron as a F-84F pilot.
In this same decade, the Free Venice Beachhead’s Masthead was redone by Brice Wood. His first rendition came out in April 1974, issue #54. A colorful Masthead with a central sun that remains the same today, his first drawing included a little house with a lighthouse behind it being struck by lightning, just to the right of the Masthead. Three issues later, in the July 1974 edition, Brice had taken out the lightning struck lighthouse (reminiscent of the Tower card in the tarot) and replaced it with the “Chee Wah Wah” squawking gull.
One of the more interesting tales associated with gulls is how the California Gull became the state bird for Utah. According to the Mormons, when the first Mormon settlers in Utah were experiencing a plague of katydids in the late spring of 1848, California Gulls mysteriously appeared and ate them all up. To this day, there is a monument to the California Gull located in front of the Salt Lake Assembly Hall on Temple Square. When gull appears in one’s life in a significant way, Ted Andrews says this bird brings lessons or abilities in proper behavior, courtesy, and communication. Because they are often found along the shoreline, a place considered to be magical because the land meets the ocean, gull can teach a person how to communicate with the world of water sprites.
Whether it is a California Gull you see, or a Laughing Gull you hear, don’t underestimate these seafaring birds. After all, legend says they even fooled Raven once. Instead, remember the Old British story of St. Kenneth who was said to be raised by Black-headed gulls. As a baby, these gulls found him floating off the coast of Wales in the year 550. They took him to their colony, where with the help of a doe and her milk, and an angel, they raised him. As a result, St. Kenneth became a kind and joyful man.
So go ahead. Mingle with the gulls. Or, like Venice’s Poet Laureate, Philomene Long once did, put on a bright, pink raincoat and become their sunset.
(Sources: http://bit.ly/1CzBiKF (Birds of NA); http://bit.ly/1xNz6tw; Rosemary Drisdell at http://bit.ly/1EcY8cI: Audobon.org; “Animal Speak” by Ted Andrews; wikipedia)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


By Philomene Long

“As for me, I delight in the everyday way,
Amidst wrapped vines and rocky caves.

Here in the wilderness I am completely free.”
Han Shan, Cold Mountain

Silver days at the Ellison
Longest rainstorm in ten years
Beneath the slippery sky

The Ellison glistening
Dangling raindrops

Silver sounds


I slip out to the sea

I am the only person

On Venice Beachhead

Grey sea, grey sky, grey sea gulls

I am wearing a bright pink raincoat

The seagulls believe I am the sunset

They turn their backs to the sea and face me
They assume their sunset viewing positions
Chests forward

Motionless. Except for

An occasional scratch of the ear

The flutter of a wing

We watch each other

I act like the sunset for them

I raise my glowing pink arms

I stand motionless for a long time
Kneel, then recline upon my heels
Alone on Venice Beachhead

It is all so slow, so simple

Being a sunset

Back at the Ellison.

Alone at the black iron gate

I look up

Soft rain sliding

Over the red bricks

Two red brick wings open

As if to embrace me

Two ghostly shimmering red wings

We watch each other

I look at the Ellison

As the sea gulls looked at me
I love this old building!

I love this old building!

Ah! yes, Kukai, the gulls and
Yes! Even these stones

Will become Buddhas

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