Immature Ring-billed Gull Pencil Sketch p74

Ring-billed Gull Pencil Sketch

Ring-billed Gull Pencil Sketch

I haven’t painted many gulls. Only two come to mind, Herring Gull and Ring-billed Gull. Ring-billed Gulls are almost dirt common. I’ve heard them called rats with wings. Despite some of their less appealing behaviors, I really like Ring-billed Gulls. 

I went to a small college in upstate New York. College can be tough in many ways. I’ve made it through life without drinking alcohol, so my college experience and diversions were pretty different than most people. The highlights of my college life were also probably vastly outside of the norm, which is fine by me.

Anyway, for my sophomore year I lived on the fourth floor of a dorm. My room overlooked a section of the dorm’s roof. The view was ugly, but the location came in handy. We got a lot of Ring-billed Gulls on campus. The huge flocks often kept an eye on the cafeteria in the hopes of scoring some food from the students. Lord knows the meals weren’t fit for human consumption, so it wasn’t a shock that some people snuck food out for the birds and dogs that frequented the area hoping for just such a treat. Though it didn’t appeal to many of the humans, apparently it had some desirability to the “wildlife” in the area. I guess it was more palatable than the dried up worms on the sidewalks of campus.

There was one especially porky husky that my friend Bill called the “Nordic Wolf.” That metabolically challenged dog waddled over from some nearby neighborhood for every meal, even in the worst of weather. Always looking for a handout, he knew the cafeteria’s schedule better than most of the students. I watched people bring complete hamburgers out for him to eat. He probably died of atherosclerosis at the age of four, but he went with a smile on his face. Yes, a big, fat atherosclerotic smile.

To make things more bearable, we came up with inventive names for the dishes at the cafeteria. Here is a sampling of what I remember of the menu: 

  • The Elephant Scabs: What they passed off for veal Parmesan. It had a tumorous, lumpy red sauce and some sort of compressed meat. In hindsight I’m pretty sure it was woodchuck or opossum.
  • Chicken Pucks: Another extruded, compressed, disk-shaped “meat product” they passed off as chicken. Now, I’m not sure what was in those, but I think a chicken could look at the ingredient list and not be offended.
  • Spackle: Mashed potatoes with little gastric appeal and the texture of joint compound—perfect for your next drywall project.
  • Lincoln Logs: Sausage links that were always blackened, hard and bark-like on the outside, yet occasionally pink on the inside! Yum… full of tapewormy goodness! 

I’ll spare you the names we came up with for fried clams. Let’s just say they were rather horrific.

What does all this have to do with birds? Well, one day there was a bunch of Ring-bills bathing in a puddle on that dorm roof top. I watched them for a while as a welcome distraction between classes. When I hit lunch, the choices were, as usual, less than appetizing. I decided to go to the “last-ditch” cafeteria station and make a PB&J. Three or four bags of bread were there, but all were empty except for the heels. Nuts! Apparently I wasn’t the only one unhappy with the choices. I decided to cut my losses and eat from the care-package my grandmother had sent. Thinking of the gulls, I grabbed all of the bags with the heels and went back to my room. Yes, the gulls were still there. I carefully cracked opened my window and threw out a heel. I was initially disappointed when the gulls exploded off the roof in fear. But, this wasn’t the first bread those guys had seen. One of them looked back and immediately U-turned like a Luftwaffe pilot, landed and started wolfing down the bread. The others were soon hot on his heels. I threw more bread out. Let me tell you, the fastest learners on campus were not paying tuition—they had wings! I was out of bread in no time. 

Well, I decided this was so much fun that I should do it regularly. A couple of times a week I’d liberate some of the bread heels from the cafeteria and create a feeding frenzy of gulls on the rooftop. A few times I felt generous enough to smuggle out some French fries, knowing that was the gull’s “natural diet.” Well, the gulls caught on almost instantaneously. The number of gulls got insanely high at times, as did the noise level of the screaming combatants fighting for the food. One day I noticed that I wasn’t the only one watching. Other students were looking out their windows because of the huge racket the gulls made. It was quite a spectacle, and someone was bound to complain to the residence life staff. 

I now had a dilemma. Obviously I wanted to keep feeding the gulls. It was too much fun not to. The trick was going to be reducing the schedule enough to evade the wary eye of the staff while keeping the gulls interested. As Pavlov knew, a well-conditioned response needs repetition! At the same time, if I did it too often and attracted too much attention, “The Man” was going to shut down my little operation. While the resident assistants were happy to look the other way for a multitude of infractions—like keg parties, the Ozone Rangers smoking pot all day long, or those breaking the purely hypothetical quiet hours—they wouldn’t tolerate something like this. In the end I was feeding them about three times a week at different times of day. Alas, winter came, the water froze and the gulls hit the road.

Winters are really long in Syracuse, New York. I resumed the feeding frenzies in the spring. A week or two before finals I met the guy who lived on the floor directly below me. His room was Ground Zero for the rooftop feedings. He yelled, “Wait… YOU live in 403?! You’re the one feeding those $%&#$ gulls all the time right outside my window! They drive me nuts.”

I replied, “Your view must be FANTASTIC!” After that I apologized, knowing that with my anonymity gone it was the end of the fun. At least I had made it until almost the end of the semester. In the following years I never had a decent vantage point to watch or feed the birds. After leaving that school I’ve pretty much had “normal” bird feeders, but there was something exciting about the sheer volume of screaming gulls zooming in for completely inappropriate food.

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