Cordova Chronicles: The year of the seagull

While Cordovans are enjoying another hot and dry summer, 2016 may soon be more remembered as The Year of The Seagull. A record number of the white-clad scavengers have inundated the rooftops of our fair city, and when frightened into flight leave behind an odious coating of white that is definitely not snow in July.

Remember Albert Hitchcock’s 1963 horror movie “The Birds”, in which seagulls terrorize a small town near Bodega Bay in California? Well, it hasn’t quite come to that. But when masses of screeching seagulls suddenly take flight from downtown and harbor areas, we all pause to look skyward, and perhaps seek cover from imminent showers.

Ironic it is — that in a city famous for it’s rainfall — many of us are now hoping for just that in its heaviest and windiest form to give all the roofs a much-needed wash down. The tops of buildings across town, as well as the blue canvas-covered walkways to the boat harbor are coated with the pungent stuff; and roofs with slight pitches and asphalt shingles retain not only the caustic output but also a mixture of black ashy you know what.

I’m surprised someone hasn’t started a roof cleaning business.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, goes the saying, and several clever schemes seem to have achieved varying degrees of success. A block away from the Cordova Center, a popular gathering place for Larus glaucescens, Trident Fisheries has strung wires adorned with red and blue flagging the length of several roof peaks. They flutter in the wind, and their roofs were noticeable seagull-free in contrast to several nearby structures.

Copper River Seafoods has plastic strips with “V” shaped spines pointing upward mounted on railing tops alongside their plant, and no seagulls in the vicinity.

Other schemes have not been so successful. When the Coast Guard ship was stationed at the dock across from Spike Island, seagulls from nearby canneries created a truly ugly mess on the decking and guard rails.

Plastic spike strips equals no seagulls on railings at Copper River Seafoods
Plastic spike strips equals no seagulls on railings at Copper River Seafoods

Research, perhaps mixed with desperation, lead to the theory that seagulls would shy away from dead brethren. Seagulls are protected, so obviously the sailors couldn’t break out the weaponry and start blazing away. Instead, the “swabbies” scrubbed the dock, and then painted white seagull silhouettes on the planks. A week later, after incessant air attacks from their adversary, the fake dead birds were indistinguishable on the completely white dock.

Perhaps there is solace in the fact that Cordova bird problems are not new. Years ago, Larry Kritchen and I were B.S.-ing about the growing population of crows around town. He revealed that many years prior, before fires wiped out most of the tall false-fronted buildings on Main Street, some one had let imported pigeons loose, creating a population that was causing a mess everywhere. This was when Alaska was truly the Last Frontier, and the solution fit the times: shoot ‘em all. If that sounds harsh, realize that during that era there was a Territorial bounty on seals and eagles, sponsored by none other than the federal government.

Nearby regions were also not immune to seagull problems. In 1962 a fisheries biologist named Rae Baxter and I used our cabin on the Copper River Delta as a base camp for tagging sockeye salmon on the Flats. In July 1963, Baxter, who wasn’t noted for his sense of humor, wrote the following entry in our Cabin Journal: “Stopped over from Martin River salmon surveys. Lots of red salmon and brown bears. This water makes the damnest tasting coffee. Reminds me of a chicken coop.”

Rae must not have noticed that the water barrel was filled with rain running off the roof.
Scrubbing our cabin water source with a Clorox solution became a yearly routine. Dad and I also rigged up a wire along the ridgeline, but because the leaky second-hand roof metal from Vina Young’s old barn had been covered with silver roof coat, seagulls could stand below the ridge.

In the early ’80s, we read about the use of imitation predators to scare off birds. Supposedly seagulls do not like owls. I promptly order four large plastic owl “scarecrows.” High school colleague and shop teacher John Goodridge welded up aluminum mounting poles, and I attached the elevated birds above each end of the cabin roof. They looked great.

Flagging atop Trident North seems to keep seagulls away.
Flagging atop Trident North seems to keep seagulls away.

The next week when I pulled up in my river boat there was a seagull standing atop each owl.
It is noteworthy that our problem spreads beyond state boundaries, which mean nothing to birds. Many years ago, I went to a University of Washington vs. Oregon State football game at Husky Stadium, in downtown Seattle overlooking Lake Union. My brother-in-law Johnny Ekemo had lined up great seats on the 50-yard line that happened to be in the middle of the UW Alumni section. None-the-less, being a faithful Beaver grad, I wore my OSU hat.

The surrounding purple-clad fans were gracious. Why shouldn’t they be, their squad was trouncing my hapless Beavers. Dusk began to fall, and a breeze off the lake was picking up. I noticed seagulls starting to flock into the stadium, evidently aware a feast of leftover peanuts, popcorn, hotdogs and beaver tails would soon be at hand. I heard a plop, and can you believe out of 50,000 fans, a seagull had picked my hat brim to crap on?

I stood up, shouted “that’s it!” and gave the hat a toss in the wind. It sailed off and downward out of sight. Two minutes later, here it came back, passed up row after row by delighted UW fans, to the Beaver Idiot in Row 67? What to do, but put it back on, and grin and bear it.

Lacking torrential rain, we may have to do the same, until migrations finally end the Year of the Seagull.

Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net.

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at shorn@gci.net. Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016.