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The Miracle of Seagulls

March 30, 2009

On a recent sunny Saturday afternoon I passed the pond at Milliken Headquarters. Families with small children were flying kites in the nearby field. Others had gathered at the pond to feed the ducks. The sky above the pond was filled with what seemed to be a hundred flapping seagulls looting the scraps of bread that were intended for the ducks.

 

I have often seen seagulls at our large impoundments – Lake Murray, Lake Hartwell, Lake Jocassee. I thought it odd that gulls would congregate in such numbers above a small pond like the one at Milliken.

 

The seagull is the state bird of Utah. Why would a state in the Rocky Mountain West choose a costal bird as their state fowl?

In 1848, after Brigham Young had led the first Latter-day Saints into what is now Salt Lake City, Utah, the pioneers experienced a mild winter. The Mormon settlers seemed destined to reap a fine harvest.

 

 In late May, swarms of insects appeared and threatened to decimate the crops. Mormon journal writers described this disaster in Biblical terms; a plague of locusts. The invading hordes of insects looked like grasshoppers. They were related to the katydid family. They came to be known as Mormon crickets.

 

On June 9, 1848, apparently attracted by The Great Salt Lake, legions of seagulls appeared. The gulls feasted on the insects, eliminating the encroaching threat.

 

 To this day, the event is known as the miracle of the seagulls. According to Mormon lore, the gulls are credited for saving the Latter-day Saints’ first harvest in Utah. Church leaders recounted the story from their pulpits. The Seagull Monument is located in front of the Salt Lake Assembly Hall on Temple Square.

 

 Seagulls can drink both fresh and salt water without ill effect. The birds have a special pair of glands over their eyes designed to flush salt from their bodies. For that reason, seagulls enjoy a wide habitat. They are equally at home on the Carolina coast,  the Great Salt Lake, or Milliken Pond.

 

 Seagulls are scavengers. They will eat just about anything, from fish to small rodents. They are clever birds. They know how to break open clams and other shellfish. They enjoy an international cuisine. Humans feed them French fries, English muffins, and Italian pizza.

 

 Gulls are typically coastal birds, rarely venturing far out to sea or into deciduous forests. They nest in large, densely packed, and noisy colonies of their own kind. They lay two to three speckled eggs in nests composed of vegetation.

 

 Seagulls are resourceful, inquisitive, and highly intelligent birds. They demonstrate complex methods of communication and a highly developed social structure.  Mobbing behavior is common. They attack and harass would-be predators and other intruders, including humans.

 

 Along the Carolina coast, three species of gulls are common – the Herring Gull, the black-faced Laughing Gull, and the Great Black-backed Gull. All three have learned to coexist successfully with people and thrive in human habitats. Gulls often take handouts of food. Gulls have also been known to steal.

 

 In October 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a World War I ace pilot, was to deliver a message to General Douglas MacArthur at his headquarters in New Guinea. Rickenbacker flew a B-17.

 

 Somewhere over the South Pacific, the flying fortress became lost beyond the reach of radio. Fuel ran low. The crew had to ditch the plane in the ocean. The big bomber stayed afloat just long enough for all who were aboard to get out. The plane went down leaving eight men in three life rafts adrift at sea.

 

Captain Eddie and his crew endured the ocean, the weather, and the scorching sun. As the men floated in shark-infested waters, their greatest adversaries were thirst and starvation. After eight days out, their rations were gone.

 

One of the men had a small Bible. The crew took turns reading from it. On the ninth day, they read from Matthew, “Take no thought of what to eat or drink.” They prayed and sang a hymn.

 

Captain Rickenbacker pulled his hat down over his eyes and dozed off. As he slept, something landed on his head. It was a seagull.

 

Captain Eddie caught the gull. The men ate the bird’s flesh. They used its intestines for bait to catch fish. In a little while a rainstorm brought fresh drinking water.

 

They drifted two weeks longer. On the twenty-first day, they were sighted by search planes, and rescued. The survivors were sustained because a lone seagull, hundreds of miles from land, became their miracle.

 

Former television “Tonight Show” host, Jack Parr, knew Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. He had a home near Rickenbacker on the Atlantic coast. Parr said he would often see the Captain along the shore at dusk, feeding the seagulls.

 

About sunset, on a lonely stretch along the eastern Florida seacoast, a white-haired man walked along the beach carrying a bucket of shrimp. In the twilight, the screeching calls of gulls grew louder as they flocked to him.

 

For half an hour or so, the elderly gentleman would stand surrounded by fluttering birds, feeding them shrimp until his pail was empty.

 

As the Mormons of Utah who built an improbable monument to a shore bird, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker was simply expressing his gratitude by feeding the gulls.

 

Both had experienced the miracle of seagulls.

 

Kirk H. Neely

© March 2009

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