Essay : The Canada goose vs. the sea gull
In a popularity contest between the common herring gull and the Canada goose, the gull would win with one wing tied behind its back. In looks, grace, aeronautical skill and approval rating, it flies rings around the goose.
The waddling intruder from the north fails on all counts. Its plump shape is of little help in the grace department. As for aeronautical skill, let's just say it manages to fly in a straight line. Its approval rating is nothing to write to Canada about. However, it is quite productive when it comes to fertilizing its haunts, such as Ocean Park in Oak Bluffs, where it arouses the ire of vacationing amblers and Frisbee throwers. Diving for a Frisbee never gave cleaners so much business.
The sea gull, on the other hand, acts as the Vineyard's welcoming host. It greets ferry passengers in Woods Hole and entertains them all the way to this fair isle with artful catches of potato chips and Cheez-Its. It may not care for these handouts and probably regurgitates them when out of view. But it's the chase it enjoys, the nosedive, showing off its aerial prowess.
The sea gull also delights ferry passengers with its skill at riding the breeze. Suspended in midair, it adjusts to wind shifts with the slightest lift or drop of a wing tip, or a mere shrug of the shoulder.
The Canada goose must flap its wings strenuously just to stay airborne. Its pitiful squawk sounds like a Mayday call, warning innocent bystanders below of an imminent crash landing. Or worse, of dropping its trademark ballast, which allegedly was the reason to close Sengekontacket for shellfishing. On the popularity scale of local critters, his ponderous bomber of a bird surely ranks barely above deer ticks.
The plaintive call of the sea gull conjures up visions of wind-raked swells under lowering clouds, of the heroic fight to snare a crab from the roiled sea, of lonely winters on ice-bound beaches. The gull is the hardy fisherman among the birds, ever on the edge of survival.
The Canada goose resembles the herbivorous bovine - lumbering and dimwitted, utterly devoid of charisma. Audubon's depiction of the bird doesn't betray a deep affection for his subject. Look at the tortuous rendering of the neck - a sure indication of avifaunal self-loathing.
It is the elegant, streamlined form of the gull and its aerial adroitness that has secured it a place in paintings and sculptures. Gift shops pay it homage by offering three-dimensional wire-legged representations en miniature. I have yet to come across a like replica of a Canada goose.
Watercolors of coastal scenes more often than not include a pair of sea gulls in parallel formation, serving as compositional counterweight to a lighthouse or a ramshackle shack. You won't see pairs of Canada geese, ploving pipers, or black-winged redbirds taking the place of gulls in this aesthetic endeavor. The tern? Too unsteady in flight. The cormorant? A hustler too busy to pose for artists.
In the realm of art, the sea gull reigns supreme. It possesses an uncanny ability to come to the aid of plein-air painters at the very moment they need something to fill a void in an upper corner of their canvas.
The gleaming white form of the gull against the dark-blue summer sky - whether in a framed work of art or in real life - remains etched in our memory. This is as close to immortality as any bird will ever come.
Peter Dreyer is a summer resident of Edgartown.