The Other White Bird
By Christine Cunningham
I was standing at the ruins of a duck blind that had been abandoned for the past few seasons. It would take some work, but the frame was there, and it could be made workable in a few afternoons. The thing about blinds is that they’re much like back yard tree forts, a place that is both an escape and a refuge. Coming into a blind after a haul through the marsh muck with a sled of decoys is as much a part of waterfowling as taking ducks.
Last Years Duck Blind
Add a retriever, a lanyard of duck calls, a bag of carefully groomed decoys, a thermos of coffee and your best friend, and it’s easy to see why the Kenai River Flats–a tidal flat found on the Kenai River’s final approach to the Cook Inlet–are loved by so many hunters despite the fact that the waterfowl isn’t exactly flooding the area. It’s one of those niche places, a wetland between two cities at the mouth of a world-famous river that manages to sustain the smallest amount of its original capacity.
There are still many species of ducks that stop over on the flats. Teal, mallards, widgeon, pintails, shovelers, canadas, snows, cranes, and snipe can all be found in small numbers. The largest number of birds, however is the only species that cannot be legally hunted: seagulls.
I was reluctant to touch the grass my hunting partner cut for the blind. I’d gotten over my initial squeamishness at crawling through marsh muck in pursuit of ducks, and I’d gotten over the smell of rotting salmon left by the tide. But this was the last straw, literally, a pile of last straws, covered in white seagull poo.
Hundreds of thousands of gulls swarmed overhead and in the distance, flying in every direction and into each other. There were still many gulls that couldn’t fly on the ground and the ones in the air were frantically squawking and screaming over their young. The near-grown seagulls on the ground reached their necks out of the grass, creepy alien-looking birds. They stared blankly with prehistoric eyes and poo-covered bills. One of them vomited nearby.
This is hell, I thought. Poo splattered down from the sky intermittently. Some hit my back. I could handle the rain, but when the weather forecast calls for scattered showers of seagull excrement, I’d rather stay under a roof.
I braided some of the grass through the chicken wire. The last time I was this disgusted I was in a real chicken coop. My grandmother was ill and asked my sister and I to gather eggs. At first I gently nudged the chickens from their nests. But after being pecked at five times for every poo covered egg, I went and got a broom to defend myself.
Looking at the sky filled with crying gulls I wondered at what point a locust storm could do more damage than this hundred acre chicken coop gone wild. Seagulls are said to have appeared like angels to cure an eighth plague of locusts that threatened the first harvest of Latter-day Saints, who were pioneering Utah in 1848. My inkling was that their presence adversely affected the duck population. I checked with a friend who works as a biologist specializing in birds. She identified the seagulls as Glaucous Gulls and confirmed that they were known to eat ducklings.
Gulls are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, although their increased populations have resulted in property damage in the form of droppings, which can destroy polyurethane roofing materials. They’ve also been known to negatively affect nesting populations of shorebirds by direct predation on adults, chicks and eggs and by disturbing nest establishment, feeding and resting behaviors.
It’s somewhat ironic that pyrotechnics (noise-making devices) is a method for controlling seagull populations, especially since noise-making was the exact method they were using on me. Even if it were someday deemed necessary to load my shotgun with cracker shells–the method by which pyrotechnics are discharged into the control area–it wouldn’t be the same as the art of water fowling.
Seals living on the marsh in the Kenai
When the blind was finished it blended in well with the white-washed landscape. Some twenty yards away a pintail flushed. It stood out distinctly from the gulls, its wings beating faster and its neck outstretched gracefully. I’ve never seen a duck at a landfill (the best way to view the bald eagles on the Peninsula) or waiting for handouts in a fast food parking lot (the way seagulls swarm McDonalds during the lunch hour). They still visit the flats, however, despite the seagull populations, proving that they must love the place as much as I do.
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