A Very Special Bird
The experts agree, seagulls are highly intelligent. But this one takes the conch.
I love this bird.
He’s a seagull, and I normally don’t have a lot of time for creatures that will steal the clamcake from my hand right before dropping a deuce on my beach towel.
But this seagull is special. And I love him for his mind, not his body.
I noticed him one day this summer, as I was driving around Bristol Harbor on Poppasquash. He was busily rearranging something in the road, and he jumped back as I drove by.
The next day, I was with my son, same road, same bird, same tricks.
“Mom, stop!” Nick said. “Look at that seagull with the conch!” The bird had a good-sized conch in his bill, shell and all.
“I think he wants you to crush it with the car,” Nick said. Too bad for him, he had the conch positioned at the very edge of the road, right by a telephone pole. I don’t mind giving an ingenious bird a hand, but not at the risk of destroying my car.
Later that afternoon he was back at it, only on the opposite side of the road. And he had the conch lined up perfectly in my tire track. He perched on the seawall watching expectantly. I nailed it, and he hopped off the wall and got his snack.
Such ingenuity! And in a species that is known for eating garbage!
As the summer went on, I watched for him. Some days he was there, some days not. But whenever he positioned a conch in a way that was mindful of my fenders, I obliged. Clearly this bird was an outlier, based on my strict multi-step scientific protocol that begins with me thinking “wow, I have never seen a bird do that before!” Steps two through five involve peer review, when I ask friends, family, and anyone who didn’t cross the street when they saw me coming, if they ever heard of a bird that used a car to shuck a conch. No, no, no, and no.
Luckily for me, our very own University of Rhode Island is the home of one of the nation’s top marine biology programs. When I finally sought out an actual expert opinion, Dr. Jacqueline Webb, the program coordinator, kindly responded.
According to Dr. Webb, seagulls are very clever, and as we have all seen, know to drop clams and let gravity do their work. But even she was unaware of any instances where a seagull employed a human female in a station wagon as a sous chef.
“They are very capable of learning what works, so this may just be an individual learned behavior," Dr. Webb said. "It may have started by just "getting out of the way" of the cars while contemplating what else to do to crack the shell and observed that the cars did a good job.”
So if you find yourself driving down Poppasquash Road, and you see a seagull who seems to be trying to play shuffleboard with a conch, put the brakes on and give him a hand. I’ve done it half a dozen times and my tires are just fine. Besides, he deserves a little credit for being smarter than those thugs who hang out at Second Beach, waiting for a little kid with a french fry to walk by with his guard down.