I have been waking up every morning for the past two weeks to the sound of gulls in my backyard. Every day I hear the same squawking, jeering and yelping cries of a group of gulls that have made the growing pool of water in the backyard their home.
In the morning, they congregate around the water’s edge to meet, discuss their plans for the day and pick at the mud in search of a breakfast of insects or worms. Most of the time they stay back at the far end of the yard but once in a while a brave member of the group will perch on the peak of the house roof and show off to the other gulls.
Some mornings I feel like I am in the midst of a small fishing village near the ocean. Most of the time, when I wake up, the squawking reminds me of life on James Bay. Seagulls, or Kee-yah-sh-koo-k, are a very familiar part of life on the coast. The bay is an extension of a saltwater ocean and gulls are never far from great bodies of water.
These thin but hardy birds are survivors and they are actually very intelligent creatures. I recall that when we left any kind of food outdoors for any length of time we were sure to find gulls gliding on the breeze overhead. They keep any eye on everything and whenever there are people around, they understand that as far as animals go, we humans are the messiest eaters and the dirtiest creatures to be found. We bring with us hordes of food, eat what we can and throw the scraps on the ground. No matter how neat we may think we can be, to a gull our garbage follows us everywhere we go.
Kee-yah-sh-koo-k are also a sure sign of spring and they arrive with the warm weather along with geese and other shore birds. During hunting season, gulls regularly play havoc with hunters on the coast. A group of birds will distract an oncoming flock of geese from a blind. Sometimes a hunter will be fooled by the familiar V-formation of a group of birds coming his way, only to discover a flock of gulls as they break their positions and fly in all directions as individuals. From a distance, their high-pitched cries also mimic the calls of snow geese and gulls are often mistaken for these smaller white-coloured cousins of the Canada goose.
The most memorable moments that come to mind when I hear the sound of gulls has to do with our family trips out to the bay in the summer. During hot summer periods, mom and dad took us out often in the family freighter canoe to find some relief in the cooler ocean weather.
Most of the time, we camped at Twin Islands, a shorter and safer ride north near the mouth of the Attawapiskat River. This was an ideal spot as it offered a gravel pebble shore, plenty of firewood in the form of driftwood and a nearby forest and a cool northern breeze to refresh us. Twin Islands, or Mah-Nah-Woo-Na-N as it is known in Cree, are actually two sandbars that have slowly grown into a couple of major islands. East of the islands, half way to Akamiski Island, there is a new sandbar that is appearing out of the grey saltwater bay. This one is known as Kee-Yah-Sh-Koh Mah-Nah-Woo-Na-N, or literally in English, Gull Island near Twin Islands.
While our family camped out for several days on one of the Twin Islands, we made day excursions to Gull Island to watch the birds. This tiny grassy island stretched about half a kilometre and was only about 50-feet wide. This little patch of land had enough vegetation to sustain a great colony of seagulls. Nests were everywhere and these noisy birds hovered on the cold northern breezes over our heads as we carefully tried to walk the narrow beach.
Whenever we came close to a cluster of nests, parent birds dove down at our heads to drive us away. As a group of young children we enjoyed taunting these gulls but we were never able to stay long as the entire colony would eventually grow so agitated that the sky literally came alive with the screeches, cries and calls of hundreds of birds diving to drive us away. When we left the little island, it was like being in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s film, “The Birds”.
Kee-yah-sh-koo-k are a very familiar bird for me and they are forever part of any memories of the James Bay coast. Even though the Kee-yah-sh-koo-k produce a screeching sound they are still in concert with the haunting cries of a flock of Canada geese, or Niska; the high-pitched honk of Way-way, the snow geese, and the singing of many Pee-nay-shee-shuk, or little birds. Without them the natural bird orchestra of the James Bay coast would be lacking.