gentle serenade of flight

gentle serenade of flight

gentle serenade of flight

Sail, bright boat, winged banner, in my verse. Stitch, body of silver,
your emblem across the shirt of the icy firmament.
Oh aviator, gentle serenade of flight, snow arrow, serene ship in the transparent storm,
steady you soar, while the hoarse wind sweeps the meadows of the sky.

(extract from Ode to the seagull, Pablo Neruda) 

What plight, the gentle serenade of flight?



It is hard to understand how we humans can write so beautifully in admiration of the gull as Neruda does, or how we can send the book and the film Jonathan Livingston Seagull to the top of the charts yet also be the species that generated the headlines above.

What possesses us to engage in such brutality? How can someone walk up to a colony of gulls and deliberately raise a stone above a nest of helpless chicks and smash it down? What sickness is it that causes someone to thrill to enticing gulls with food, shooting just to stun and then run over their living bodies with a car? What is in the head of a person who drives through a colony of eggs and chicks, distressed parent birds keening about their windscreen, and call it fun?

And, most perplexing of all, what has the gull done to earn such hate?


How can someone raise a stone above a nest of chicks and bring it smashing down? (karoro chicks – Larus dominicanus)

As a passionate bird photographer and conservationist I find it hard to understand how anyone cannot see the beauty in the silver flight of a gull. Or not experience awe at their precise aerobatics; perhaps experience a tinge of envy at their sleekly groomed perfection even in the face of a gale?

But too often we hear: “gulls are a pest”, “fucking scavengers”, “lamb killers”, “food stealers”, “flying rats”.

Most gulls are, indeed, opportunists, many successful animals are. But it is the habits of humans that create the problem; the bird is simply looking for an easy feed, a quality that most humans can surely identify with. So when they gather at the outdoor restaurant table, or swarm over open rubbish tips, surely the question we should be asking is not “will someone rid us of these pestiferous birds?” but rather, “what have we done to cause this behaviour and how can we fix it?” When animals become ‘pests’ it is almost inevitably the behaviour of humans that is the root cause.

Gulls do not flock to tips that are well managed and covered quickly; they soon bore of restaurants where food is cleared as soon as the table is vacated and where patrons don’t encourage them with a surreptitious scrap under the table. And as to lambs, studies show the infamous black-back rarely, if ever, kill healthy living lambs.  They do, however, take placentas or docked tails, or feed on carcasses of lambs that have died from other causes.

Perhaps it is because there is something in the human psyche that looks down upon scavengers. In New Zealand the swift falcon is admired but the largest and equally handsome raptor in our skies, the swamp harrier, is derided as being “nothing but a bloody scavenger”.

New Zealand's  black-billed gull, the most endangered gull in the world, yet people have, more than once, attacked this colony.

New Zealand’s black-billed gull, the most endangered gull in the world, yet people have, more than once, attacked this colony.

But I don’t think it can be so simply explained as merely a cultural dislike of scavengers, this savage brutality toward other species that we humans display; seemingly for no reason other than some apparent bloodlust. For, it is not just gulls that are the victims of it. In New Zealand we’ve seen more than one attack on seal pups and they hardly fit the scavenger label, indeed are popularly seen as ‘cute ‘n cuddly’.

Sometimes our persecution of animals is because we perceive animals to be a threat to our own prosperity: the magnificent kea, the world’s only alpine parrot, was shot in the thousands because of a very few attacks on sheep; the black shag was hunted almost to local extinction because they had the nerve to eat trout that we wanted to eat ourselves.

This selfish attitude, too, can only be a part explanation, because sometimes cruelty to animals seems to have no motivation other than the act itself and whatever perverse gratification its perpetrators receive from it. Indeed, such cruelty can be counter to the perpetrator’s interests, such as when a farmer deliberately harms the animals that produce his income.

At this level, cruelty to animals gets scary. There is evidence that it can be an indicator of, or precursor to, the same person ‘progressing’ to human victims.

A "restaurant scavenger" in it's natural setting is a glorious bird (juvenile tarapunga - Larus novaehollandiae)

A “restaurant scavenger” in it’s natural setting is a glorious bird (juvenile tarapunga – Larus novaehollandiae)

We can probably do very little to prevent the deep-seated psychosis that drives pathological cruelty, but at least this is comparatively rare. But much of human kind’s distressingly more common ‘casual’ cruelty to animals is enabled, I believe, by social apathy and attitudes that seem to condone or even imply tacit approval. Fisher, hunting, and rural communities, for example, too often clam up when harm is done to animals because they don’t want to dob in their neighbours and mates, or bring their industry or recreation into disrepute.

“It’s just a few bloody gulls,” is a response I heard from one driver when I remonstrated with another 4-wheel-drive owner roaring through a protected gull colony; an attitude that is, unfortunately, widespread. Never mind that the birds in question were the most endangered gull species in the world!

Until there is community ownership of, and appreciation for, the animals that share our recreational spaces, cruelty will be enabled because it is so rarely condemned, let alone reported or prosecuted.

To grow a sense of pride in our wild neighbours, education is vital, awareness is vital, building community pride is vital.

a bathing tarapunga - red-billed gull (Larus Novaehollandiae)

a bathing tarapunga – red-billed gull (Larus Novaehollandiae)

Take for example, the black-billed gull and black-fronted tern colonies in the Ashley River on the edge of Rangiora township. The black-billed gull has the undesirable status being the most threatened gull in the world and the black-fronted tern is one of New Zealand’s most endangered and declining tern species. These are the gulls that in 2012 were attacked by people who smashed stones into the nests; and just this last breeding season, where off-roaders drove straight past warning signs to plough through the nesting terns.

But there is a change of attitude that is becoming increasingly evident. Locals are becoming proud of the fact that their little patch of river is host not only to these two threatened birds, but others as well, such as the unique wrybill. There is a growing sense of community ownership. Having been given the chance to become educated about these birds, locals themselves have expressed a willingness to police the riverbed in breeding season and seem more willing to ‘dob in’ those who drive past the “no vehicle access” signs.

This is an achievement when you consider that some elements within the conservation community itself have sometimes lobbied for not telling the public about these special places in their backyards in the, I believe, mistaken belief that this helps protect the birds from lunatics who would see killing a rare bird or smashing its eggs as a challenge.

A young blac-billed gull tries its wings, protected in the Ashley colony by growing community surveillance

A black-billed gull chick tries its wings, protected in the Ashley colony by growing community surveillance

Having worked in conservation education for many years my experience is that when people are given the chance to be good, they frequently are good, but they need to understand why. And, when they do, they often become passionate advocates for the precious species in their midst.

But it should not, of course, have to take the plight of a rare and threatened species for us to take action against the callous, or at least indifferent, cruelty meted out to the animals we share our environment with. The red-billed and black-backed gulls are abundant, but this does not make the cruel killing of them any less deserving of condemnation.

If we are to resolve this issue, good people must be given the knowledge, and the chance, to be good and, more important, enabled to do good. For it is a truism that (and I quote): “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing.”

silver wings (adult black-billed gull in flight - Larus bulleri)

“rally each heart at the sight of you silver wings” (adult black-billed gull in flight – Larus bulleri)

Look at the way I glide
Caught on the wind’s lazy tide
Sweetly how it sings
Rally each heart at the sight of your silver wings
Jonathan Livingston Seagull, lyrics by Neil Diamond.

12 thoughts on “gentle serenade of flight

  1. Nicely done Steve, perhaps you could get The Press to print the blog as a feature.
    It’s also probably time the ‘public road’ status of our rivers was reviewed as far as being open to motor vehicles. It is childish I know, but I have a little quiet snicker every time I cross the Ashley and see another 4WD bogged mid-stream waiting for a tow. I suspect most of the townie off-road set wouldn’t even see the chicks and their hot reaction to your protests is just the gut reaction we have when our ignorance is exposed, being unwilling to acknowledge fault. It’s the same ignorance that sees dogs encouraged to ‘put the birds up’.

    That pioneering spirit of ‘ if you can’t sell it or eat it then kill it’ is all too alive and well in Canterbury. Not that I mean this is the cause but it is an attitude that underlies senseless acts. It is OK because gulls have no value!
    The stoning is a primal act and most boys seem to have a need to kill things, so then it comes down to the attitudes of their parents as to how that primal hunting urge is satisfied or redirected. we were talking to our Loburn neighbor one day when their young boys came up all excited and breathless “Mum, Mum we ran down the baby plovers and stoned them to death” then uncurling their hands revealed the mangled bodies of thistle-down chicks. Mum was uncomfortable but didn’t reprimand, I believe they would normally have got high praise for such bloody work.

    • I think you’ve hit the mark Graeme “gulls have no value”. It echo’s the comment in the blog “they’re just a few bloody gulls!”

  2. I agree with your sentiments about the need to protect these birds. However I feel obliged to say that i work as a peer educator with people who experience mental illness. I was a bit pissed off by some of the language you used. I know and cherish many people who live with some level of psychosis. I also experience mental distress, and illness and wellness myself.
    Torturing animals is not something people do because they are mad, they do it because they are cruel and lacking in empathy. Most mad people I know are kind and generous after dealing with difficult times and losses in our own lives.
    This is my challenge to you written with compassion for birds and the mad among us 🙂

    • Hi Sue

      Thankyou for your heartfelt comments and I commend your work with the mentally ill, especially as I also battle on a daily basis with an ongoing anxiety-depressive disorder which has led to several suicide attempts in my past. I, too, have volunteered in mental health support, especially suicide prevention int he GLBT community, for some years. I do wish to point out, however, that I do not in any way say all people with psychiatric illness are cruel to animals, but I do believe, and there is strong medical research to back this, that extreme cruelty to animals is a form of psychosis with strong predictive links to psychopathic behaviour directed against other humans. I agree that lack of empathy is a significant component of what might be called “casual” cruelty and I specifically note in my blog that this cruelty is different to that linked to a psychopathic illness.

  3. I fall on my sword then, and thanks for your reasoned and informative response. Btw after posting that comment I realised who you are, I met you years ago in Timaru. Beautiful small world we live in!

  4. Such thouinghtless and wanton aggressive behaviour is often the action of a small and powerless person seeking to make themselves feel big and powerful. How sad it must be to feel such an overwhelming sense of worthlessness that one must perpetrate such mindless and empty fury.
    I in no way seek to justify such acts far from it. I do however think that behaviour such as this comes ultimately from a social malaise rather than an individuals personal sickness.
    We exist in a society largely divorced from a widely held spiritual perspective. As members of our society we are taught to value ourselves as separate from the natural world andthe creatures we share it with. This is sad.
    Wonderful writing and photography here Steve. Good on you for spreading the message.

  5. G’day Steve – excellent blog, which I fully support. GraemeU has partly hit the nail on the head when he mentions the “Public Road” status of riverbeds. However that is not an accurate description of the legalities, and is in fact one pushed by the 4wd community to advance the legitimacy of their “recreation”. There are many unformed legal roads (so-called “paper roads”) within and along the braided riverbeds of Canterbury, but the riverbeds are from from all being legal roads. Confusion arises from the fact that under the Transport Act the riverbeds (amobgst many) are classified as “public places” which are subject to the requirements of that Act (ie wof, vehicle and driver licensing). The riverbeds (and beaches for that matter) are “roads” purely for the application of road traffic rules, and the Act does not confer any right to use a motor vehicle. The expanding use of motor vehicles with an off road capability has been tacitly encouraged by weak authorities who choose to encourage “recreation” by a selfish sector of society at the expense of the environment, and to the detriment of people whose recreation is not motorised.

    I suspect that within our society there exists what I describe as a “frontier mentality” – people with poor understanding of nature have a perception that we have vast expanses of wide open spaces, so that their personal impacts on any one part is negligible in the wider picture. This attitude is typified by statements such as “the last flood did far more damage than my 4wd” – statements which ignore the reality that the flood is a major, natural event which birds have adapted, and which occurs at irregular and infrequent intervals, whereas the 4wd “recreationalist” is a scourge on biodiversity every weekend, and many week days, all year around!

    best wishes


      • I’ve been battling against irresponsible use of motor vehicles on beaches and riverbeds in Canterbury for 15 years – let me know if I can help in any way!

  6. To learn about love and life one has but to observe nature – undisturbed. This is an excellent post.

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