Sunday, February 7, 2010


Today, after taking in the museum of plant sex (a.k.a. the Botanical Garden), in Washington, DC, I stopped to watch the gulls soaring above the reflecting pool in front of the Capitol Building. It was gusty and a few minutes before sunset. What are they doing up there?, I wondered. So I fixed my eyes on one gull and followed her flight. (I do not share a gull’s skill for distinguishing male gulls from females, so I have chosen this one to be a girl gull).

I followed her for five minutes. With the exception of a 30 second stretch when she lost altitude and flapped her wings, she soared with outstretched wings the entire time. She wheeled in circles, usually clockwise. Her altitude ranged from about 40 to 150 feet, and she never ventured far from the 3 acre pool. When I left, she was still soaring, as were a dozen or so other gulls.

Biologists seek adaptive explanations for practically all animal behaviors. So, what was she doing up there? Clearly, it isn’t energetically expedient to soar when one could be floating or resting on terra firma. I contend that these gulls are flying for the fun of it.

An observation I made week earlier at the same location brought me to the same conclusion. A couple of dozen gulls floated on the water, dunking and preening themselves. Several others soared overhead. I noticed a gull with something in his beak. And, as I’ve often seen in gulls, there was an aerial chase in progress. Gulls are aerial pirates. Like crows, frigatebirds and some other opportunists, they will chase other birds seeking to bully or intimidate them into relinquishing a food item. It often works.

At first glance, the chase looked like it was over food. The lead bird with the item in his beak uttered muffled squawks while three other gulls flew in hot pursuit. He arced upwards, swooped downwards, and made dramatic and sudden shifts in horizontal direction. After about a minute, he got sandwiched between two pursuers and, opening his bill, quite deliberately let go of his prize. One of the other gulls grabbed it before it fell even five feet. The chase resumed. Soon, this gull also released the tidbit. Again, it was grabbed by a pursuer. After 90 seconds of some highly entertaining aerobatics, this third gull managed to break free of her harriers. She flew to a far end of the pond, where I expected her to alight and have her well-earned snack in peace.

She did nothing of the sort. She got to the far end of the pond and—with the deliberateness of a grocery shopper returning a bruised apple to the basket—she dropped the object, which landed unceremoniously in the water 75 feet below. She flew back to her colleagues, alit on the water and proceeded to preen herself.

Like so many sentient animals, gulls are not slaves to their selfish genes. Theirs is not an unremitting, earnest struggle for survival, as some nature documentaries would have us believe. Gulls who soar and play tag are a triumph of emotions over genetics. They remind us of the whimsy of nature and the power of pleasure to add color to our days.


At July 29, 2010 at 8:38 PM , Blogger Bob said...

Two opposable thumbs up for Balcombe's close
observations of gull play (but can we confirm a
species ID for the principals?) and for his paean to
play in nature. Balcombe 1, evolutionary psychology 0.
Birds are so not winged chimpanzees, or flying monkeys, and this is not the Land of Oz, nor was meant to be. Keep those cards, letters, and field observations coming.

Bob Fagen

At September 6, 2010 at 8:59 PM , Blogger Jonathan Balcombe said...

Bob, thanks for your comment. I've heard of your book but have not read it (yet). The gulls in question were Ring-billed gulls. Common in winter in DC as they were in the warmer months (at least) where I grew up in Toronto.
You may be interested in my forthcoming book The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure (U of California Press, ca March). Email me if you want more info.


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