Christopher Stocks

I was woken at seven in the morning the other day by an almighty racket going on outside, as every seagull within 200 yards screeched, honked and hooted in the kind of cacophonous chorus that always makes me wonder if the Greeks got the idea of the Furies after hearing them scream and whirl about overhead.

It’s a terrible, ugly sound, its function obviously to spread the alarm about a perceived threat, as well, presumably, as to alarm potential predators. But it’s also a fascinating phenomenon to listen to, since this massed screeching always begins and ends in the same way. Unless the threat is a big one – a helicopter, say, or a chimney sweep’s brush popping unexpectedly out of a chimney pot – the chorus is usually initiated by a single gull.

Perceiving a threat, whether it’s just because someone has started staring at it (try it sometime), or because it’s caught sight of a passing cat (even though cats can patently not fly), a gull will usually start chattering to itself, with a series of short cackles in groups of three or four.

This can go on for some time, and die away again if the threat recedes, but if it doesn’t then soon other gulls start joining in, even if they don’t appear to be entirely clear what the threat might be. Normally the closest gulls start honking first, with pairs of gulls often honking alternately together like a pair of bellows, their necks see-sawing up and down like those nodding-donkey oil wells you’ve seen on old newsreels.

Quickly other gulls start joining in, until every gull within earshot is screaming like a banshee. This can go on for ages, and it often forms a deafeningly discordant dawn chorus which is one of the most distinctive, and mournful, sounds of the seaside.

Eventually the climax passes and slowly the noise dies down, though a few scattered gulls continue to squawk disconsolately for some time yet. Occasionally, as paired gulls do their alternate honking, though, there’s a fascinating point where, for a while, their calls start going in and out of phase.

It suddenly struck me, as I lay there sleeplessly, that it’s an effect a composer like Steve Reich might find utterly inspiring, and it certainly has its own strange beauty. Though not, perhaps, at seven on a February morning.

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