It was around 4:45 in the morning when the screaming started. The sound dragged my mind into the waking world and, for just a second, I wondered if something horrible had happened. I wiped the sleep out of my eyes and peered toward the ceiling. A feeble gray light seeped in through the skylights and the shrieking continued. It sounded like there were hundreds of them up there and they were yelling at each other as loud as they could.
"Freaking seagulls," I muttered to myself. I pulled the pillow over my head and tried to go back to sleep.
The next morning, I sleepily poured myself a cup of coffee and opened the shade of the little side window of our apartment. The building next to ours is shorter and that window is about level with their roof. Outside, the sky was dark with clouds and it was raining softly. A sullen gray and white bird stared back at me. Her eyes were red rimmed and her feathers were messy and sticking up all over the place. She looked like hell.
"Rough night, Eloise?" I asked as I sipped my coffee. She glared back with a look that was exhausted, protective, and angry. It was a complicated and complex glare that only a brand new mom could have pulled off. Under Eloise's wing, a spotted brown and black ball of fluff tried to push itself further under and into her body and out of the cold of the morning. I assumed that the ball of fluff's two siblings were under there as well. I wondered where Eloise's mate Winston was. Off getting food, I imagined.
When Jen and I first moved into a building in Chinatown in downtown Victoria, we expected the neighborhood to have some interesting residents. We didn't expect, however, that our most numerous and nosiest neighbors would be able to fly. It never occurred to us that we would be constantly startled when one of our two pound flying neighbors would decide that a skylight is a good place to make an emergency landing and hit it with enough force to shake the ceiling. We never could have imagined that we'd watch our neighbors make their home cozy, give birth, raise their young, and then leave, and that we'd feel a little loneliness when they were gone. We definitely never believed that we would be spending part of our day staring out a window watching a couple of birds. Birds that we named.
Almost every city and town that I've every lived in has had gulls flying around in the background. In Victoria, and indeed in most of the West Coast, the seagulls are Glaucous-winged Gulls (Larus glaucescens), and despite being so common that they are almost invisible, they can be fascinating creatures. Their name means pale-winged and, as adults, they have a large white head, neck, and body, with a gray back. Their wings are gray and have pale white-tips. They are about two feet long and adults weigh a bit over two pounds. In short, they look like the type of seagull you have seen all your life.
Glaucous-winged Gulls live close to saltwater and they are so common because they aren't food snobs. They are opportunistic eaters who are happy to dine most anywhere. When the tide is low, we've seen them eat crabs, fish, sea-urchins, jelly-fish and even star fish. Inland, we've seen them go for French fries, worms, thrown-away fast food wrappers, centipedes, Starbuck frappacinos, and pretty much anything remotely edible left in fine trash cans through-out the greater downtown area.
Throughout the winter, our apartment is pretty quiet. The seagulls don't really hang about in the rainy season. However, as we get closer to summer, the seagull party starts. For urban breeding grounds, gulls particularly like flat roofs much like the one on our apartment building.
Glaucous-winged Gulls are social birds and they nest in colonies. Adult seagulls often return to the same colony year after year often with the same mate from the previous years. We like to believe that Winston and Eloise found love at first sight.
When a Glaucous-winged Gull couple find a good spot to settle down, they get territorial and protective of their breeding grounds. They - well, like most of the people downtown it's mostly the males - will squabble, fight and shriek at any other gull they think might be disrespecting them. In our neighborhood, the gulls seem to prefer to get their aggression out every morning between 3 and 5 a.m.
The females will build a nest mound out of dried plants and feathers and, after a romantic early spring, she'll lay two or three speckled eggs. For almost the next month, she'll sit on the eggs and keep them warm. To be perfectly honest, since it's hard to tell the difference between Eloise and Winston, they might trade off. He seems like an involved parent. At any rate, after about 26 days, small brown balls of fluff with black polka dots will emerge from the eggs.
These cute little balls of fluff like to wobble around and, well, look all cute. However, their main activity is to cry pathetically for food. You would never imagine a little brown ball of fluff could ever destroy a person's sanity. And, yet, our research shows that if you surround an apartment with them and have them do their high-pitched little squeaks of hunger all hours of the day, without even the common decency to take a weekend off, a person will be stretched to the breaking point.
I think the crying even gets to their parents. I haven't seen many non-domestic animals that I can actually describe as looking tired, but Eloise and Winston not only look tired, they often look frazzled. During this time period, one of the gulls will stay with the chicks, sitting on them to keep them warm, and the other will go get food.
Each adult gull has a yellow bill with a red subterminal spot. This is a red spot near the end of their bill that when chicks peck, the parents are stimulated to regurgitate food. When you don't have hands or shopping bags, it's the best way to carry food to your young. If your parents didn't regurgitate raw jellyfish to feed you, well, then, they obviously didn't love you enough.
For the next month and a half, the adult gulls watch the chicks, provide them warmth and safety, and regurgitate food just like every good parent should. The chicks stay inside the little territory that their parents have marked out. Otherwise, their nearby gull neighbors will be very angry and killing wandering chicks isn't uncommon.
It takes about four years for a Glaucous-winged Gull to reach full adulthood. Between the cute ball of fluff stage and the dignified white and gray dressed adults are the teen years. Teens are easy to spot as they have dark bills, mottled gray feathers, and act all awkward and surly. Chicks are first capable of flight around 35-54 day. They slowly get bigger, changing from little balls of fluff to little fluffy birds. Their wing nubbins will grow and they'll walk around flapping them.
And then one day they'll be gone. And so will their parents.
For the first time in months, you'll have relative quiet. Winter comes and you forget about all about birds. You'll enjoy getting full nights of sleep in a warm and cozy bed. However, one early spring morning, you'll be woken up in the wee hours by horrible shrieking. And, if you're me, for a brief second you'll be terrified that perhaps the world is ending and then a slow smile will cross your face as you wonder if Winston and Eloise have returned.
The next morning; though, will be filled with curses. So will the next one. And the morning after that.
Manuel noticed Jen staring at the fat, pink bulbs hanging down above us and he went to grab a machete. We were eating breakfast in the back courtyard of the Casa San Juan, a Spanish colonial house, in Merida, Mexico, which was built in the 1800’s and lately renovated into a guesthouse.
The back courtyard of the Casa was a lush oasis from the noise and heat of Merida’s streets. Jen and I were the only two guests that morning and we lingered, sipping our coffee and fresh juice that Manuel brought us. A tall tree grew in the middle of the courtyard and provided shade for Jen and I and the couple of shy cats that called the courtyard their home.
As only seems to occur in tropical or rainy climates, the tree itself was home to a number of epiphytic plants and cacti. Epiphytes are plants that live on trees without being parasites and they turned the tree near our breakfast table into a vertical garden. Bromeliads and cacti spilled from the lower branches of the tree, making it seem like we were eating breakfast in a rainforest, rather than in the middle of a concrete city with over a half million residents.
Long, green ribbons of a type of holiday cactus hung down from the tree, anchored in the air by fat, pink fruit the size of a fist. This type of cacti lives in tree branches where, even if it rains constantly, the water drains off the branches so that the cactus itself actually lives in a dry, almost desert like environment.
Manuel noticed Jen staring at the bulbs, went off towards the kitchen, and came back with a wickedly long machete. He quickly cut a bulb off one of the cactus ribbons and put it on a plate. In a smooth motion, he placed the blade along the bulb’s equator and neatly sliced it in two.
Inside each half of the fruit was a perfect circle of a white filling with black spots, which in my mind looked like chocolate chip ice cream. Manual handed us spoons and indicated that we should eat. We dipped the spoons into the filling which had solid yet soft consistency.
“What is this called?” Jen asked.
“Se llama la fruta mas bella del mundo,” Manuel answered. It’s called the most beautiful fruit in the world.
And so we ate the most beautiful fruit in the world, dipping our spoons into it and eating the insides much like one eats a kiwi fruit. The taste was subtle and mild, only slightly sweet in comparison to most fruit. There was some irony to be found in the fact that something so beautiful has an almost plain flavor.
As we traveled across Mexico and Guatemala, we continued to see the bright pink bulbs both growing from cacti and being sold in markets. The pink, rubbery skin hid the black and white center and we were glad to know what secret hid in such a beautiful fruit.
Years later we were surprised to find the most beautiful fruit in the world being sold at markets around corner from our Chinatown apartment in Victoria. They lie, individually wrapped in plastic, inside of cardboard boxes labeled "Dragon Fruit."
The proper name, the Internet tells me, is pitaya or Hylocereus undatus. The fruit grows in most tropical regions of the planet but likely originated in the Southern Mexico/Northern Central America region in which we first discovered and devoured it.
In addition to dragon fruit, it is also called the apple cactus, the rose cactus, the strawberry pear, nanettikafruit, and various other names. But for us, it will always be la fruta mas bella del mundo, the most beautiful fruit in the world. And from time to time, we’ll go around the corner to the market and buy one, put it on a plate, and slice it open with a kitchen knife. We’ll dream that our knife is a machete and that our kitchen table is outside under a vertical garden and we’ll consume the bland taste of beauty.
“There is no way it’s alive,” I stated with the cocksure authority of someone who is either an expert or of someone who is completely and utterly wrong. My friends eyed me dubiously so I looked around for a stick to perform the field procedure (scientifically known as “poking”) for telling if a critter is alive or dead.
Just off the sunny Mediterranean beach, in only a foot or two of water, was the critter in question – each of its eight arms were stretched out lazily in a star-like pattern and its skin was a warm, rusty-brown shade. It was Octopus vulgaris, the common octopus, and observing its limp, sprawled body, I quickly concluded it dead. Or perhaps suntanning.
We approached the octopus carefully and with good reason. Not only were we out-armed, octopi are smart, stubborn animals. They are considered to be the most intelligent of all invertebrates, including congressmen. In laboratory experiments, octopi have been trained to distinguish between shapes and patterns. There have also been reports that they can learn from observing the behavior of other animals around them.
In a marine biology class I took in university, the professor once told the following story to illustrate just how smart octopi can be. A colleague of his was once doing lab research with octopi. The researcher was trying to do some sort of shape identification behavioral training (I’m hazy on the details here) where if the octopus would point to a symbol or push a lever or perhaps text message, it would get a reward.
One particular octopus seemed to resent the manipulation and, out of spite, it refused to participate in the experiments for the researcher. Most animal behavior researchers and biologists don’t use words like “spite” in fear of anthropomorphizing their subjects. However, our professor stated, this one octopus seemed to really hate the researcher.
It wasn’t that it refused to participate in the experiments. It was that it refused to participate in experiments when that particular person was present. Anytime he was in the room, the octopus sat in the corner of its tank and glared stubbornly. However, the octopus would participate in the experiments just fine for the assistants and grad students in the lab. When the primary researcher would come into the room, though, it would stop what it was doing and refuse to do anything more. It was as if the octopus understood who was in charge and had designed the experiment.
The researcher, finding he was being shut out of his own lab, tried to trick the octopus. He tried dressing like a student, he tried walking into the lab backwards, and, as our professor told us, he even tried dressing in drag (which illustrates how far biologists are willing to go for science). Nonetheless, it was all to no avail – the octopus always knew it was him. And, perhaps, it was running its own experiment on the researcher.
In this same lab, our professor told us, another octopus would constantly escape from its tank. Each of the tanks had fresh water constantly being pumped through them. The octopus would sit on top of the outflow pipe, causing the water level of its tank to rise until it overfilled the tank and lifted the lid up. Unfortunately for the octopus, neither the researcher nor any of the lab techs ever left their car keys lying around. The next morning, the researcher would find the creature huddled stubbornly in the corner of the partially flooded lab.
Octopi have a fascinating nervous system that differs greatly from our own. A majority of an octopus's neurons are not in its brain but rather in the nerve cords of its arms, which act as their own mini-minds when it comes to controlling the arm’s movement. A National Geographic article from 2001 explains that the brain inside the octopus skull sees a tasty sea morsel and decides to eat it, but to get the morsel into its mouth the brain inside the skull sends a message to a mass of nerves inside the octopus arm. That mass of nerves controls the arm movement independently from the brain to snatch the tasty treat.
So, that day on the beach, we approached the octopus with caution. If octopi can hold grudges and if their arms have minds of their own, it’s probably best to stay on their good side. When we got close to the water, the “dead” octopus darted away into deeper territory. However, after a few minutes it was back and it seemed to be enjoying the sun.
If octopi really can learn from observation, then I theorize that after seeing thousands of European vacationers sprawled in the sun on Mediterranean beaches, this one wanted to see what the big deal was. Now if only I could get a grant to do a comparative study on human and octopus sun tanning habits.
Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re walking on a path along a marsh or river or harbor and suddenly you feel like you’re being watched? You look around and don’t see any people but then you spot the gigantic bird standing a few feet out in the water and you realize it’s been watching you the whole time.
The Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) is the largest heron in North America and the only one that seems to stare at me on a regular basis. It is gigantic a bird – herons can be over four feet tall and have a wingspan of over seven feet. Yet, for all of their size, great blue herons are both delicate and elegant looking. Their bluish-gray wings and bodies, long spindly legs, and white heads with black caps and long plumes often remind me of a 1940’s photograph of an elderly society woman, in a ruffled boa or cape, heading out for a night at the opera.
However, unlike most elderly society ladies, herons are wading birds and thus they are often found standing in water. If they’re not watching you, they are probably watching the water – they eat small fish, frogs, salamanders, shrimp, crabs, insects, pretty much the same stuff you can order at any greasy fish n’ chips shack. Herons stand or meander slowly through the water until they see something that looks tasty and then they strike at the meal quickly with their spear-like bill.
Victoria, BC, where I live, is home to a large population of great blue herons but they are pretty common to all of North America and can be found from Alaska to Florida to Mexico depending on the season and their migratory patterns. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the herons don’t migrate much. In Victoria the herons belong to a sub-species, Ardrea herodias fannini, that are year round residents of the city.
Herons nest in colonies - called, well, heronries - in tall trees or bushes that are usually near the water. These colonies can have anywhere between a half dozen to several hundred large stick nests. Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park is home to a large heronry and this time of year is the perfect time to go watch them (and be watched by them). There’s something about strolling through a city park and looking up and seeing what appears to be a dozen elegant, elderly ladies sitting 50 feet up in a tree. Just in case you don’t live in or near Victoria, the city has been good enough to set up a live webcam of Beacon Hill Park’s heronry. Be sure to check out heroncam.com for the sort of feathered, elderly, society, ladycam action that goes on in the back corners of that park.
Of course, as elegant as they are, Great Blue Heron’s are never very elderly. Victoria’s heroncam.com site states that 69% of all great blue heron’s die in their first year while the oldest live to be about 23 years.
So take a moment this spring to walk or have a picnic along some water or in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park and when you suddenly feel like you’re being watched, try not to be bothered by that elegant lady – the one standing in the water or high in a tree – that’s staring at you. Instead grab a cold Blue Heron Pale Ale from your picnic basket and raise a friendly toast to these birds and try not to stare when they swallow a live frog in return.
[Editors note - Lately, I’ve been asked why I haven’t expanded my Biology! category - a series of posts about interesting, fascinating, and/or horrible animals. So, as demanded, here is yet another animal which I haven’t sat on.]