Harvey H. Jackson: The peg-legged seagull and I
Nov 06, 2013 | 2032 views |  0 comments | 22 22 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Not many folks like seagulls.

They are considered selfish and their cry insults the ears.

In Finding Nemo, Disney made them pushy predators that squawked “mine, mine, mine” at anyone who invaded their space.

They stand around watching beachgoers with an expression of casual distain that suggests if anyone gets too close, he or she might lose a finger.

They take to the sky with an air of swooping superiority that allows them to use everything below them as a toilet and care little about who or what it hits.

Alfred Hitchcock made them the villains in his classic horror film, The Birds. Everyone seemed to think it was a good choice.

They are scavengers.

Some folks call them “buzzards of the beach.”

Want to know where folks set up their umbrellas, chairs, coolers and snacks yesterday? Look at where the seagulls are today.

Yet, this summer I have formed a bond with one particular seagull.

Every morning, weather permitting, it is my habit to go out early and walk the shoreline east toward sunrise. When I reach the stairs that lead up and over to a convenience store, I go up and over and buy a lottery ticket. Then I walk back, enjoying the fantasy I purchased for $1.

Along the way, I pass one of those small public beaches that dot the Florida Panhandle — parking for a few dozen cars, restrooms and stairs down to the sand. These are places where families from inland come to spend the day picnicking, sunning and swimming. Frequently, some of their picnic falls into the sand, where it is left for the gulls.

So every morning the gulls are there, fixed in their fighting posture with feathers ruffled, fussing and squawking — claiming their territory and defending it.

Then, a couple of weeks ago I noticed one of them was missing a foot. All he had was the leg, which he used as expertly as peg-legged Long John Silver used his in Treasure Island.

Still, he was obviously handicapped, for when he walked his peg-leg sank in the sand and he had to flap his wings to regain his balance. My natural sympathy for injured animals, even obnoxious ones, kicked in and I decided that the next day I would bring some cheese crackers to supplement his breakfast.

A word about seagulls.

You can’t feed just one.

Toss out a cracker and the next thing you know the whole flock flies in to fight over it. I worried that Peg Leg wouldn’t have a chance.

But he did.

Utilizing the quickness that surely contributed to his longevity, he waded into the crowd, fussing and squawking with the rest, and soon he was getting his share of what I tossed.

He was even better when I threw a cracker into the air. In flight, his handicap did not matter. I pitched a cracker above him and sure enough, he took wing and grabbed it. Immediately the whole flock was flying around, squawking and looking for more of what their peg-legged friend had found.

Suddenly, it was a contest between us (Peg Leg and I) and them (every seagull between Panama City and Destin). Our strategy was simple. I would toss a cracker on the sand and the gull-gang would go for it. Except Peg Leg. He would hover in air off to the side, waiting for me to throw him a cracker of his own.

This continued for about a week and then, one morning, he wasn’t there.

Other gulls were, so I threw them a cracker or two, hoping Peg Leg would come out of hiding and join the crowd.

He didn’t.

I headed on to my destination and just before I reached the stairs I saw a single, solitary gull hard at work on what was left of a fish that had been caught and then thrown away. It was Peg Leg, doing what gulls do.

Now, I don’t want to leave you with the idea that seagulls are all about themselves. True, they are as committed to looking out for No. 1 as any man or beast. However, when faced with something that threatens them all, they can and will act together.

Coastal residents tell of how, during hurricane season, when the wind rises and anyone with any sense goes inside, or inland, gulls will form a triangle, the point facing the storm. They will hold the formation until the point-gull is blown over. Then they will allow the gull that had taken the tumble to retire to the back of the triangle while another bird moved up to take its place.

Now, that sort of behavior, if better known, might make folks like seagulls more. Or maybe not.

Meanwhile, the peg-legged seagull and I are hanging in there. Thanks for asking.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is retired Eminent Scholar in History at Jacksonville State University and a columnist and editorial writer for The Star. Email: hjackson@jsu.edu.
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