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The Miracle of Seagulls

July 14, 2013

            On a recent sunny Monday afternoon I passed the pond at Milliken headquarters. Families with small children were flying kites in the summer breeze. Teenagers were sailing a Frisbee in a nearby field, and others were gathering 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 intended for the ducks.

            I have often seen seagulls at our large impoundments – Lake Murray, Lake Hartwell, and Lake Jocassee. I thought it odd, however, 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 coastal bird as its 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 an abundant harvest.

In late May though, swarms of insects appeared and threatened to decimate the crops. Mormon journal writers described this disaster in Biblical terms: a plague of locusts. These invading hordes of insects, which resembled grasshoppers, 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 birds feasted on the insects, eliminating the encroaching threat.

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

Seagulls can drink both fresh and salt water without ill effect. A special pair of glands over their eyes is 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, Lake Bowen, or the Milliken pond.

These seabirds are scavengers that will eat just about anything, from fish to small rodents. They enjoy an international cuisine, often taking handouts of food from humans.  They are known to eat French fries, English muffins, and Italian pizza. These clever birds know how to break open clams and other shellfish.

Gulls are typically coastal birds, rarely venturing far out to sea or into deciduous forests. They nest in large, densely-packed 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.  Noisy, mobbing behavior is common. They attack and harass would-be predators and other intruders, including humans. Gulls have also been known to steal.

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 successfully coexist and thrive in human habitats.

In October 1942, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a World War I ace pilot, was given the assignment to deliver a message to General Douglas MacArthur at his headquarters in New Guinea.

Somewhere over the South Pacific, the flying fortress, a B-17, became lost beyond the reach of radio. With fuel running low, the crew ditched the plane in the ocean. The huge bomber stayed afloat just long enough for all who were aboard to escape. 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, their rations were depleted.

The crew took turns reading from a small Bible belonging to one of the men. On the ninth day, they read from the Gospel of Matthew, “Take no thought of what to eat or drink.” The eight then prayed and sang a hymn.

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

Captain Eddie caught the gull. The men ate the bird’s flesh and used its intestines as bait to catch fish. After a short time a rainstorm brought fresh drinking water.

The crew aboard the raft drifted two weeks longer. On the twenty-first day at sea, search planes sighted and rescued the men. The survivors had been sustained because a lone seagull, hundreds of miles from land, became their miracle.

Former television “The Tonight Show” host Jack Parr knew Captain Eddie Rickenbacker. Parr’s home on the Atlantic coast was located near Rickenbacker’s residence. 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 cries of gulls grew louder as they gathered around him.

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

Just as the Mormons of Utah built an improbable monument commemorating a shore bird, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker expressed his gratitude by feeding a flock of birds.

Both had experienced the miracle of seagulls.

Kirk H. Neely
© July 2013

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