L ARUS likes to play around with a crowd of other gulls. He does not spend much time alone. There are always a lot of gulls on or near Holiday Shore, and the place suits Larus so well that he stays there most of the year.
Larus, the Gull
If you watch Larus and his comrades performing in the air, you may think that flying is their favorite sport. They can hold out their straight-spread wings and soar higher and higher; and there is no more beautiful sight than gulls sailing against the wind without moving their wings. But however much pleasure the gulls may take in their easy, graceful flight, they never forget to be on the watch for what is an even greater happiness to them—a picnic feast. Breakfast and dinner and supper are all very well, but they are not enough for gulls. They welcome luncheons between meals, too.
So, as they float far overhead, their keen eyes gaze this way and that way. They notice things that move in the water.
During a certain week or two in the spring, for instance, Larus sees thousands of little black sail-shaped objects moving near the surface of the water below him. These objects are really fins on the backs of fishes, called alewives; and the alewives are crowded together in the bay as they turn their tails toward the ocean and head for the fresh water of Holiday Stream.
One glance at the moving fish is enough for Larus. He gives a joyful scream and drops suddenly through the air, alighting on a stone in shallow water. The other gulls repeat his scream and quickly follow him. They speak no words we know, but they sound and act as if they were yelling something that means "Hurrah! Let's go!" Then and there they indulge in a shore dinner of alewife meat.
This ability of gulls to find crowds of fish in the water is sometimes helpful to men. Gulls have a habit of hovering over schools of herring, of swimming among the fish, and of diving to get some to eat. Long ago fishermen named them "Herring Gulls," because by watching these guides they could tell where the herring were running and follow in boats to catch some for themselves.
Although gulls are good enough fishermen to catch small live fish running in schools, their favorite picnics are those where the food is already prepared for them. So they often follow fishing vessels at times when the men are cleaning fish and throwing the waste into the water. They fly close to the boat, screaming loudly as they swoop down for the food. Those that take the smaller pieces can often pick them up while still on the wing, without stopping to settle on the water. But even those that sit down long enough to gobble the larger pieces do not waste much time. In a few minutes they are up in the air again, flying after the fishing vessel, and screaming for more.
Larus and his comrades often follow passenger steamers out of the harbor to see if waste food is thrown overboard. Perhaps next time you take a boat trip you may remember Larus and toss a crust of bread into the water for him as you leave the dock.
Gulls like the same kinds of meat and cooked vegetables that people do, but they are not at all particular that their food should be fresh. They will even take city garbage that is dumped from scows into the water—and like it. Any bird or other animal that eats very stale food is called a scavenger. The scavenger gulls perform a great service in keeping decaying matter out of the way of animals that cannot remain healthy in unclean places. They help keep the seashore and the harbor sanitary, and one of the names given them is "Harbor Gulls."
Some of the picnics are enjoyed several miles from the shore when the gulls go to the meadows to catch grasshoppers. Sometimes these birds go berrying, too, for they like to pick the sweet blueberries that grow on the hillsides not far away.
But what is Larus doing now? There he goes, flying up from the shore with a clam in his beak. He hovers high above the rocks and drops his clam. Then he darts after it with almost the speed of an arrow. He has need to hurry in order to get the meat out of the broken clam shell before another gull can get there to grab it. (You may know that crows have this same famous trick of dropping clams on rocks to break the shells.)
With so much to interest him there you can easily see why Larus plays about Holiday Shore most of the year. There comes a time in the spring, however, when the voice of Larus takes on a different note. He still screams as harshly and eagerly as ever at mealtime when he rushes for food with the crowd. But during more leisurely moments he may be seen strutting up and down the beach while he lifts and lowers his head and gives a long, loud call.
His call has rather an appealing sound. Mrs. Larus, at least, seems to like it. Last spring she listened to it for a week or more; then she and Larus flew away from the shore, to an island far out in Holiday Bay. Hundreds of other gulls followed them, and all soon were working on homes built among the rocky cliffs of the island.
It did not take much time to arrange the nest. A hollow place in a stone served for the floor. A few sticks and a soft padding of grass and other plants made a good bed on which Mrs. Larus laid three eggs. They were grayish blue in color, speckled with lilac and brown.
Both parents helped keep the eggs warm, Larus taking his turn when Mrs. Larus flew away for food. After nearly four weeks of such care the eggs hatched. The downy youngsters were yellow-buff with their underparts nearly white and their backs quite dark and spotted with black.
A downy infant gull among the rocks.
The little triplets could run about on their pretty dark pink feet almost as soon as they were out of the eggshells; and by the time they were two or three hours old they had already found pleasant shady places among the rocks to hide while they were waiting for their mother or father to bring them something to eat.
Larus did not carry food to his young in his bill as a parent robin does. He swallowed what he found and carried it to the island in his stomach. When he reached his family he got the food back into his mouth with a sort of pumping motion of his stomach muscles. Then he laid it on the ground and the youngsters helped themselves. Or perhaps they were in such a hurry that they began to eat by reaching into his mouth with their little bills for some of it there.
Father and Mother Larus were kept very busy for the next five or six weeks, for young gulls are even hungrier than old gulls, which is saying a good deal. By the end of that time, however, the greedy youngsters were large and strong enough to fly and swim for their own food.
There being no longer any reason for staying on the nesting island, Father and Mother Larus and the other old gulls returned to the neighborhood of Holiday Shore.
Yes, those two gulls sitting on the cliff now are Larus and his mate. They look alike, do they not? As you see, their heads and tails and all their under feathers are pure white. Their backs have a bluish-gray color that is sometimes called "gull blue." Their wings are "gull blue" above except for some black and white feathers.
Who is that bird that has the same size and shape as Larus but with quite different colors? Oh, that is one of the Larus youngsters. His suits will be all mottled and streaked with ash-gray, buff, and brown until his third year or later. Then he will dress in feathers like those of his parents.
Although Larus keeps chiefly to his own Gull Society, he meets many other harbor birds in the course of the year. On chilly winter days, for instance, he may often pass Golden-Eyes, the sea ducks, swimming along the coast.
Whistler and Quandy
Father Golden-Eye whistles—not with his mouth but with his wings. As he flies he moves his wings with strong upward and downward strokes. He spreads the long stiff feathers at the tips of his wings as he does so. The air rushes between these stiff feathers with a musical whistling sound as his wings beat rapidly downward. Men who hear such a duck in his flight say, "There goes the Whistler!" That is how Father Golden-Eye got his nickname.
Just how Mother Golden-Eye came by the name of Quandy we cannot tell you; but it takes only a glance at these handsome ducks to know why they are called "Golden-Eyes."
Whistler's spring suit is white underneath. Some of his top feathers are also white. The dark parts of his body, except his head, are gray or sooty brown. His puffy head looks black if he is some distance away; but if he is near enough you can see a beautiful dark, glossy green color with some violet reflections. He has a rather large, rounded, white spot on each side of his head between the eye and the base of his bill. Quandy's head is not quite so puffy, or fluffy, as Whistler's, and it has a plain cinnamon-brown color with no white spot.
Would you like to know where Whistler and Quandy spend their time when they are not wintering off Holiday Shore? Well, last spring, for instance, they flew inland with whistling wings. They went as soon as the water in the streams began to run and the ice was melting in lakes and ponds. Some of the Golden-Eyes who had been their winter companions traveled northward almost far enough to reach Arctic places. Others stopped here and there in Canada. Quandy and Whistler, however, did not get quite to Canada, for they found a tree in one of our northern states which just suited them.
The tree was a large one and in its trunk was a hole exactly right for their nest. A brook ran by the base of the tree, about thirty feet below the nesting hole.
Many birds line their nests with something soft before they lay their eggs. Quandy laid her eggs first on the dry chips in the bottom of the hole and then pulled off enough of her breast feathers to cover them with a downy comforter. It took her nearly two weeks to lay her glossy ash-green eggs for she had a dozen of them. (Some Golden-Eyes lay more than that and some lay as few as five or six.)
After sitting on those twelve eggs most of the time day and night for about twenty days, Quandy had the pleasure of welcoming her brood of youngsters as they broke the shells that had held their growing bodies.
Of course Quandy had had brief recesses during her days of brooding while she went for necessary food and drink; but even so twenty days made a long time for her to live in a hole in a tree instead of swimming freely in the water. She had been quite contented to do so, of course, for nothing would have tempted her away from her eggs. But now that the youngsters were hatched—well, that brook looked very inviting to her!
Quandy waited, however, until the downy little Golden-Eyes were two days old. Then she looked them over carefully and left the nest forever. She had had enough of it. She flew down to the water below the hole and clucked. Her babies heard her call and hurried to the doorway of their nest. Then out they tumbled, one after another. They could not fly, but they flapped their tiny wings as they dropped from the high hole in the tree to the brook beside their mother.
Those babies could not fly but they could swim. They did not even need to learn how. So off they paddled down stream with Quandy. Whistler came and stayed with his family much of the time, too.
The Golden-Eye youngsters thrived so well on food, such as little fish and juicy plants they found by diving in freshwater streams and ponds, that early in the fall they had grown to be as large as their parents. They all looked very much like their mother in their first suits. (The sons will not have glossy green feathers and big white spots on their heads until their second winter.)
When cold weather came the ducks did not mind in the least. They were even quite comfortable sitting in the first snow on the bank. But one morning they found something hard and shiny on top of the pond. They could not get their breakfast. Although they did not suffer from the chill winds, all wrapped up in their feather coats, they did object to going without their meals. So they flew to the open sea where they could swim and dive for little fish and other salt-water food during the winter season.
Besides the sea ducks and other swimming birds Larus meets in the harbor, there are many beach birds who visit Holiday Shore twice a year. Larus is somewhere about as they come and go, but he seems to have no particular interest in them.
People find delight in watching them even if Larus does not. See those little sandpipers over there, for instance. They are also known as sand peeps, or bumblebee peeps. When they are resting you might easily pass along the shore without noticing them at a little distance. They are small, about the size of sparrows, and their little streaked brownish-gray backs do not show clearly against the pebbles or the sand. But you can see the whole flock as they race along the wet sand, following the out-going waves to see what sort of shore dinner they washed up for them.
Mr. and Mrs. Bumblebee Peep
During four or five weeks each spring these little sandpipers may be seen lingering about Holiday Shore. They have come from farther south where they spent the winter; and they are going to Labrador or other northern places to rear their young bumblebee peeps.
Late in the summer they return, the old sandpipers arriving first and their grown sons and daughters following about a fortnight later. During August and September flocks of these little birds are most common on Holiday Shore, though some stay until nearly or quite all winter.
When they are not running along the sand on their almost black stiltlike legs, they seem a leisurely lot. They gather in sleepy flocks, tuck their bills under the feathers on their backs, and doze—each, as likely as not, standing on one leg the while. They may have reason enough to be so sleepy, for perhaps they were awake most of the night before. They often travel by night as well as by day.
What time are you going to Holiday Shore for your next visit? Of course there is plenty to interest one at any time of the year, but we should not be surprised to hear you say, "I think I'll choose to go while those little sandpipers are visiting there, too."