By Denny Olson
In what now seems like a geologic epoch ago, I was going to graduate school on a teaching assistantship, working summers at my first interpretive naturalist job in a Minnesota state park. The park’s main attraction was a beautiful gorge with rapids and waterfalls, but there was also an 8,000 acre wild area with very few trails on the west side of the river. At the lower end of the gorge was a tall, sinuous esker, a fossil mid-glacier river bottom of rounded rocks and gravel, left behind as a sinuous hill. Next to it there was a long abandoned river channel from glacial times, now a half-mile long slough because of a large beaver dam on the south end. At the north end of the beaver pond was a small cabin, where I was allowed to live for free, as long as I patrolled the far end of the park and completed a natural history survey of the park’s flora and fauna.
It was a very sweet deal, and I managed to squeak in some beaver social behavior research for my animal behavior classes at the University of Minnesota in Duluth. The ornithology bug had bitten me fairly hard by that time, and I had great fun with a variety of warblers and a Green Heron rookery at the far end of the pond.
Every day, fall, winter and spring, I would drive the gravel two-track three quarters of a mile along my pond and off to the University to teach zoology labs and take classes. One pretty autumn day I was driving the gravel road back home late afternoon. Where the road was closest to the pond, about halfway in, a raucous gang of about 50 Ring-billed Gulls were yelling and milling around in the pond. It was normally quiet back there, but not today. Directly in from the crowd of gulls was another adult gull sitting in the middle of the road, as if on a nest. I drove my car right up to it and it didn’t move. I stepped out, to shoo it away (I was hungry, and home was a few hundred yards ahead). It looked at me but didn’t move. After some scare tactics that turned out to be useless. Talking quietly to it, I gently picked up the gull, who didn’t protest, and launched it out over the pond toward the screaming gull gang. Other than “that was weird” I didn’t think about the experience much that evening. Lots of studying to do …
Next morning. on my way back to school, the gulls were still there, and the lone gull was back, sitting in the same spot as the previous afternoon. The exact same spot. I picked it up again, and this time set it down at the edge of the road, with the gull-gang screaming their disapproval. I drove off for the day.
When I returned that afternoon, the flotilla of gulls was gone, and the pond was quiet. But in the middle of my driveway road, again in the exact same spot, was the lone gull. This time it sat slightly canted to one side. It was dead. My neck hairs began to stand at attention.
My science-trained brain wanted answers, a reductionist explanation about “survival advantages” to what I had witnessed. I came up with exactly nothing. I can conjure images of a respected elder, a colony leader with perhaps 60 years of offspring, with the family and friends there in hospice. But really, there were only questions. Why this exact spot as a place to pass from this life — of all places in the middle of a driveway? I know that crows and ravens sometimes have a wake, a gathering for a dead bird. What did the colony of gulls know? Or more importantly, what do I not know, and probably never will?
There is perfectly reasonable magic in this world. A sense of wonder, as Rachel Carson named it, continued from there, especially about birds. The creativity and logic in a raven’s brain, the speed in a hummingbird’s existence, the completely unbelievable feats of migration and navigation, “seeing” magnetic lines of force — birds will always be at the outer edges of our imagination. And their other gift, if we wish accept it, is humility, the tempering of our illusions of dominance and control. They have been here for 130 million years. We should be so lucky …