Sweet and gentle are words one does not associate with monstrous seagulls, but one that once befriended me had both these qualities—and proved far more affectionate than those who sought to break up our beautiful relationship.

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The man who bore down at me as I was walking towards my local park to have a relaxed lunch and read a book had fire in his eyes as stormed towards me. “You and I,” he bellowed, “need to have word about that bloody gull I’ve seen you feeding on numerous occasions.”

He ranted on:

I have been watching you for weeks, and I know you’re off to share your potato chips and sandwiches with that flying rat. That’s totally out of order because it just encourages these pests to attack people carrying food.

Then others chimed in to side with the Man Who Hated Gulls. The row escalated when a policeman arrived and warned me that I could be fined for feeding the things. I demanded to know what local law he was accusing me of breaking.

“Littering,” he smugly replied.

I retorted that, as I would always exit the park leaving not so much as a crumb behind, I was in breach of no law, turned on my heel, and walked off.

This happened about 12 years ago when I was living in the UK seaside resort of Brighton, and, yes, I did have a gull friend—one addicted to bacon-flavored chips.

Our love affair began when I realized that the bird, unlike most other gulls in the area, was not a vicious thief who would snatch food out of one’s hand. Stephen, as I chose to call it, would patiently wait at my side and take chips, and pieces of bread I offered, in the gentlest manner imaginable.

I’m sure glad it didn’t get a mention in Monty Python’s parody of “All Things Bright and Beautiful.”

All things dull and ugly,
All creatures short and squat,
All things rude and nasty,
The Lord God made the lot.
Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings,
He made their brutish venom.
He made their horrid wings …

A few months later Stephen arrived with a young ‘un in tow. It was clearly nervous, and cowered behind its dad. Or maybe it was its mum. I had no idea what Big Bird’s gender actually was.

But one thing I was sure of was that my feathered friend really wanted the youngster to be my buddy too. It nudged it towards me—using both its beak and wings— and made some head gestures that I took as safety signals. Within days I had two gull friends, one on either side as I lay sunbathing on the grass.

I chose the name Stephen for the gull because some months previously a particularly obnoxious evangelist called Stephen Green came to Brighton to protest a “blasphemous” musical, and shout homophobic remarks on one of the city’s busiest streets.

He’d just reached fever pitch when a gull dive-bombed him, and splattered crap across the front of his shirt. This immediately put a stop to his rant, and he legged it to the nearest washroom to clean off the mess. Howls of laughter followed him, and he simply disappeared.

Ever since, the creator of Christian Voice UK has been known as “Birdshit” Green.

Until the bird and I bonded, I shared most Brightonians’ dislike of the creatures, but this incident involving a hate preacher convinced me that gulls can’t all be bad.

People will tell you terrible tales about them. Reports of gulls savaging small dogs and kittens, and knocking over kids and the elderly to steal their food, abound in UK media, but the story of what happened to a friend of mine called Stephanie truly belongs in a horror movie—or a Stephen King novel.

Stephanie was working at a restaurant in a large shopping complex that had trash cans on the roof. On a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon, she took two bags of rubbish up the roof and was immediately spotted by a gull which settled on her head.

Stephanie, who has an absolute terror of gulls, literally froze to the spot. An hour later, colleagues—noticing that she hadn’t returned—sent out a search party. She was found, frozen stiff and in a state of complete shock … with the bird still perched on her head!

When she told me of her encounter a few weeks later in a pub, I laughed so hard scotch came out my nose—and Stephanie delivered a painful kick to my right shin and stormed out.

I was reminded of Stephen, and Sue’s experience, when, on a recent visit to Brighton, I spotted a pair of gulls aggressively ripping open two garbage bags.

Photo credit: Barry Duke

According to local authorities, the growth in the seagull population is a national problem, but urban gulls are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Culling can only be carried out where there is a threat to public health and safety, or to aircraft. Nuisance alone is not considered to be a reasonable justification for culling.

Each time I see a gull in the part of Spain in which I now live—they tend to be smaller here, and don’t shred garbage bags because the law won’t allow rubbish to be left on the street—I fondly remember my summer picnics with Stephen and son (or daughter) and wonder whether they’ve found a new pal to feed them chips.

It’s quite possible because gulls have an average lifespan of 20 years.

They are reminders to me that beauty can be found in the most unexpected places; that even a creature that’s regarded as a nuisance can demonstrate kindness and grace.

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Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....