A seemingly long school term came to a surprisingly quick finish on Friday and I found myself relieved to be supervising the lunch queue for the last time in October. I say, ‘relieved,’ when I should say, ‘alarmed,’ for – despite binning a Sixth Form themed Halloween dress- up day for fear of scaring students in younger years – I enter the lunch hall to find the caterers have gone gothically rogue; at least two of the canteen staff are dressed as Freddy Krueger and suddenly their pasta pots don’t seem quite so appetising. As the queue despells (I couldn’t resist an All Hallows pun) I venture outside to see how students dining alfresco in the rain (teenagers don’t seem to notice cold or damp) are managing to shield their sandwiches from the resident sea gulls.
Now I say sea gulls, but again I already know that I will need to correct myself for I can hear Favourite Daughter’s Favourite Man (FDFM) sighing, ‘they are not sea gulls, they are herring gulls’. Now what ever gull umbrella they may be flying beneath, one thing is for sure, these birds are particularly aggressive. and flighty.
It comes to something as a teacher when you feel confident about managing student behaviour, but you fear venturing outside the classroom between lessons to face a swarm of yobbish sea gulls – sorry, correction (thank you FDFM) – a squabble of sea gulls.
I despise littering in any shape or form (don’t even start me on empty Maccy D bags thrown from car windows as drivers strive to keep their vehicles pristine. Too late! There I go), but I have a particular fear of litter on school premises because I can see the herring gulls (get me FDM and RSPB) ganging up on classroom roofs ready to swoop in as soon as lunch ends. This squabble of gulls will really kick off if a student leaves a rubbery pizza slice unguarded or a cheesy chip unclaimed in its paper cone. Freddy Krueger would need more than a nimble litter picker in his leather, metal-clawed hand to be a match against this onslaught.
I have mixed feelings about these gulls. On the one hand they are intelligent enough to be in the vicinity for break and lunch times – regular as clock work – but on the other, I have heard people say that gulls will also swoop in at lunchtime during the school holidays although clearly there can be no lunch time harvest on offer. (I can not verify this assertion because during school holidays I am usually fending off herring gulls from my fish and chips on some seaside promenade). If the holiday assertion is correct, I am left feeling our feathered friends may be less than street-wise. Back to your air waves, gulls.
My indecision about gull intelligence was strengthened earlier in the week when I caught a gobbet of ‘Inside Science’ on Radio 4 as I dashed (still mindful of that speed awareness course) to compare harbourside gulls with our in-land school variety. To be fair, I was really focused on a coffee date rather than embarking on an ornithological experiment, but on arrival at a dockside beer garden (such a balmy October folks), realised that these birds are flipping everywhere.
Anyway, this scientific tweet of the day asserted that experiments were showing that it is possible to prevent a herring gull from attacking your chips by staring at it; if you turn your back, the gull is more likely to take its chances. The distraction of an imminent Americano probably meant I may not have grasped the full detail of Madeleine Goumas’ (Exeter University) experiment with our feathered friends, but I think the gist was that these findings mean that seagulls may be much, much more intelligent than we have given them credit for. If they can read another creature’s feelings, they may just be more than flying vermin.
Not being the best sharer of food (I fashion myself on Joey from ‘Friends’ i.e ‘MAMA J DOES NOT SHARE FOOD!), I quite like the idea of a staring competition with chips being the prize for the last person to look away. As a teacher, I feel I am well practised in holding a steely stare; my concern is whether I can actually play chicken with a gull. I have a sneaky feeling that I may just blink first if a herring gull is about to bomb dive my fries.
At my last school I remember standing by the Headteacher’s PA as she took a grievance call from a local resident, ‘your seagulls are pooping all over my car,’ he said and I had the pleasure of listening to a master class in mollification as she explained to the caller that the school did not own any gulls and therefore could not be responsible for their guano. (In retrospect I feel FDFM would have have admired this sea bird-specific reference to bird excrement. I must tell him). If the Head’s PA had not subsequently retired, I would now call her with my new-found knowledge about sea-gull staring, for she could have added the information to her master class for future ornithological nuisance calls.
Anyway, I haven’t time to dwell on any more herring gull trivia, I’ll leave that to FDFM. Any wider research could mean eating into the half term break while I learn about a gull’s ability to harness air currents as well as capitalising on man’s litter and messy eating habits. I have already caught myself being distracted by a business management definition of a ‘sea gull manager’ (in case you are interested, a term for someone who periodically flies in, makes a lot of noise, dumps on people, maybe eats their lunch, and flies away) but I managed to rein myself in: I have apple bobbing and trick-a-treating to prepare for and a Freddy Krueger fedora is not going to make itself. I will have to fly.