The most graceful bird

A Herring gull comes in for a landing in a tidal pond.An eagle is majestic, beautifully decorated, lord of all he surveys. He is not always hunting, but even when he is not, he is cataloging possibilities against the time when he desires a snack.

Wild turkeys are utilitarian. Ben Franklin, according to a 2013 article in Smithsonian Magazine, wrote in a letter to his daughter he thought the wild turkey “a true original Native of America … a little vain and silly (but nonetheless) a bird of courage.” Some have thought the wild turkey flightless, but they err. On the other hand, it flies only when it must, and then only for short distances.

Franklin, did not, apparently, express a wish that the wild turkey be named the national bird, but he did object, in unkind accusation, to the Bald Eagle having that title. He called the creature an opportunistic thief, a trait to which I can attest. I lived two and-a-half years in Alaska. Annually, Pink, a.k.a. Humpbacked, salmon swam into Finger Bay, making their way to the same freshwater source in which they were born.

If you caught them while they still were in salt water, they were excellent eating – a fact the Bald Eagle population knew well. Human fishing gear was limited to a rod and hook – no nets once they were in the bay, so a fisherman caught them one at a time. The eagles that shared my home island also knew they were protected. They waited for a human to catch a fish, lay it on the ground and return to fishing – then swoop down and steal the salmon. I am certain I heard the winged felons laughing as they moved just out of reach to devour the fisherman’s planned evening dinner.

The vulture, whether Turkey or Black Hooded – the two breeds that inhabit the skies and feeding grounds near my home – ride the air in circles in constant search of food. They look their part, constantly spiraling until comes the signal, “Cleanup on Aisle 116.” They are very efficient recyclers, feeding often on diseased carrion their system is uniquely designed to digest.

But a seagull flies for the pure love of flight. She eats because she must, or at least because food is easily available, such as at landfills or in the wake behind fishing boats. She races along the shore, inches above the frozen magma that defines the line between walking and swimming. She cares little for either, though she can do both as she occasionally relinquishes the sky to others of her clan.

Suddenly, she pulls skyward and banks hard right, control surfaces on her wings and tail almost imperceptibly adjusting her turn out over the breaking waves. Finally, she settles into a long glide, coasting like a teenaged driver, racing low over seaweed exposed by low tide that has left the rocks spotted with small pools of water, kelp and mussels.

Landing in the pool, she search for and finally finds a closed shell, grabs it firmly and takes off, climbing to 20 or 30 feet until she has spotted the best place to drop the mollusk. She drops her prize to shatter on the magma table – only to see another of her clan swoop in to catch it, mid flight, in an airborne game of keep-away.

The chase is on! The two aviators race and twist, dive and climb, thoroughly enjoying their pastime. While other birds practice finding food, seagulls practice flying.

I spent much of the past two weeks sitting on a rocky seacoast, camera in hand, watching Great Black-backed and Herring gulls cavort in the skies. Seagulls, I decided, are the most graceful of birds.

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