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THE MIRACLE OF SEAGULLS

August 29, 2020

For thirty-eight years, our family vacationed on the South Carolina coast. We have not done so for the last two years because it is difficult for us to travel. Even so, we have many fond memories of those times together. Walking in the surf at low tide gathering seashells, fishing on the rising tide, crabbing in the creeks, or swimming in the waves just beyond the breakers were favorite pastimes. We built sandcastles and flew kites when our children were younger. When they were older, we played Frisbee golf or beach football. Now, it is our joy to know that our grown children are enjoying the beach with their own families.

            Clare and I enjoyed fresh seafood, good books, an afternoon nap, and rocking on the front porch. It always took me a while to unwind, but if I took off my shoes and my watch, I was able to live for a few days by the tides and by the sun. Among my favorite quiet activities was bird-watching.

            The Carolina coast offers a wide variety of shorebirds. Watching osprey feed their young or catching sight of a snowy egret winging over the marsh was a joyful surprise. Even identifying birds as common as seagulls, was interesting. Herring gulls were typical, laughing gulls were entertaining, and spotting an occasional great black-backed gull was a rarity.

On a recent sunny afternoon, I passed the pond at Milliken headquarters in Spartanburg, South Carolina. 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. In the sky above the pond, a small flock of flapping seagulls took turns diving down, looting the scraps of bread intended for the ducks.

            I have often seen seagulls at our large reservoirs – Lake Murray, Lake Hartwell, and Lake Jocassee. I thought it odd, however, that gulls would congregate 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 saltwater without ill effect. A unique pair of glands over their eyes is designed to flush salt from their bodies. For that reason, seagulls enjoy an expansive 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 typical. They attack and harass would-be predators and other intruders, including humans. Gulls have also been known to steal from unattended picnic baskets and to filch from fast food lunches left on the tailgate of a pickup truck. Along the Carolina coast, gulls have learned to coexist and thrive in human habitats successfully.

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 colossal 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 that belonged 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.

Later Captain Rickenbacker recounted the story with the publication of a small book entitled, Why I Believe in Prayer.

Jack Parr, an early host of the television broadcast “The Tonight Show,” 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.

Just before 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 a raucous horde of ravenous gulls, feeding them shrimp until his pail was empty.

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

 Both had experienced the miracle of seagulls.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

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