Monday, 5 December 2011

Red Billed Gulls

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe in Sumner, idly looking out through the window at a flock of red billed gulls. Amongst the group of a couple of dozen or so there were two who were in the process of hooking up for the upcoming breeding season, and I thought of some lines from a song by Crash Test Dummies: How does a duck know what direction north is? And how to tell his wife from all the other ducks? Two pretty much identical gulls had decided that the other was the one they had been waiting for all their life and they were setting up the pre nuptial contract. To a non gull such as myself it was a bit mystifying how they had made their choice, and how they were going to maintain it for long enough to get the eggs laid; and indeed, which of them was going to do the laying and which of them the other bit. But they knew what they were doing.

The first thing they did was to clear a circle of about two or three metres across of any other gulls, and they both policed their little vacant dance floor with noisy rigour. Then, once they were clear of distractions they played a little game of Simon Says: racing about with their heads at funny angles, fluffing their feathers, squawking, running back and forth. One would start and the other would copy exactly;I think they had turns at being leader, but who can tell?

As I was watching them another pair of gulls landed. They soared in side by side and dropped neatly down onto the runway from about a foot in the air in a swift, perfectly executed little landing manoeuvre, the two of them absolutely in sync. And then they stood there, side by side, still absolutely in sync. One of them stood on one foot and instantly, so did the other one. One picked at a chest feather and so did the other. One looked left and both heads turned. One ran a little to the right and they both moved together.It seemed that the bond between them was not based on the particularly attractive curve of a jawline, or the length of a thigh but on something more ephemeral: some sort of psychological, psychic even, linking. The formation of such a bond makes sense of the little pairing up dances, and the clearing away of other  gulls who might interfere with the linking process, and it is not so spooky-action-at-a-distance-ish as we more brainy bipeds might assume.

When we humans are in rapport with one another we mirror one another. When we are deeply engaged with one another, we will walk in pace, and speak with the same rhythms and using similar vocabularies. We will breath at similar rates and our body languages will be similar. This is something taught in counselling classes, but unless you are actively looking for it, it is completely unconscious: we do it quite naturally and unselfconsciously, and we use it to bond together in ways that are only slightly more sophisticated than the seagulls. When we want to increase the efficiencies of a team doing hard physical work we sing shanties or spirituals or we chant; and to build a sense of communion with one another we do things in sync: we sing in choirs and engage in the inanities of ballroom dancing.

How does the duck know... how to tell his wife from all the other ducks? the same way I guess that two friends silently know to turn left at this corner when they are walking beside the river or the alto knows that the overall sound will be improved if she sings just a fraction softer. The beauties and power of deep communion go further down the psyche than mere logic, and further down the ladder of creation than we civilised beings might have assumed.


ElizH said...

Well, that was a GREAT cup of coffee!! :-)

Wynston said...

One of the many unanswered questions from the natural world methinks. Brilliant observations though.