Laughing Gull Lessons — A Meditation on Boundaries

Photo by Trac Vu on Unsplash

Laughing Gull Observations

Navarre Beach, Florida. August 2021. Cloudy, rainy day.

The laughing gulls stand watch at surfs edge, looking out to sea.

I’ve ensconced myself beneath my umbrella, doing the same.

Dead fish float in on the waves and slosh about in the surf. The waves deposit the 6” long fish on the beach, probably killed by karenia brevis, a species of marine algae commonly called “Red Tide.”

The gulls lay claim to them. Pecking at the gill to make a way into the inner cavity in order to extract the internal organs. Pecking and moving the little fish up onto the beach, or down into the water. Sometimes the fish is lost back into the surf. The gulls dip their beaks into the water occasionally, as if cleaning them.

Laying claim involves defending the fish. Other gulls swoop in or hop over. When they get within the zone, maybe a meter away, the claimant will squawk and do one of several things: give ground, drive the intruder off, tussle with it by hopping up in the air or by putting the head low and charging a step or two toward the interloper. All of this behavior is accompanied by the characteristic cackle of the “laughing” gull.

It seems that the non-breeding individuals, gray headed and with higher pitched vocalizations are able to defend their claim a bit more effectively than the breeding colored individuals with fully dark heads and lower pitched laughter.

Evocated Questions

As I watch them, I wonder why they have not learned to step on the fish, holding it down to make eviscerating it easier.

I’m also surprised at the size of the zone, the personal space, to which the gull attends.

I wonder — is the commonly held assertion that “it’s bad to create organizational silos and create kingdoms and engage in turf wars, it’s better to collaborate and cooperate” just a human primate experiment? One aimed at reducing individual conflict and pouring energy into bigger corporate goals in order to make achieving them possible.

How much of that kind of human behavior is just another manifestation of animal pecking order?

Is organizational stratification simply an expression of pecking order and the push to reduce conflict simply designed to ensure that those at the top of the order as well as those at the bottom are less likely to be injured and thus retain their positions?

What might be different? Resource procurement is a community effort. We don’t seem to be scavenging (or is that what we are doing?) and there does seem to be sharing of resources for the survival of the whole. But….

Our big brains recognize that there is something not quite right when the inequality of the situation gets too great. That seems to evoke squawking and dust-ups. Does it end there? Or, does it lead to mass chaos, violence, and mayhem?

Gulls don’t go so far as to gang up and make war on other individuals or groups.

Humans do.

Think: Standing armies, military-industrial complex, striking employees picketing their companies, police teargassing protesters, protestors throwing rocks and flaming bottles, playground bullies whipping on the little kid, snarking gossip assassinating the character of the workmate or neighbor.

Gulls seem to practice individualized low energy conflict. It seems that rather than creating structures that allow for low scale interpersonal tension and preclude escalation beyond that, we deploy our corporate collective structures, into which individuals are inculcated by notions of “belonging,” to forcefully defend the resources that we claim or take what others claims?

Is that just what happens when we suppress the localized, interpersonal dust-ups? Does suppressing local interpersonal boundary-making create the kind of simmering resentment that breaks out in mass chaos, violence, and mayhem?

“Observe the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap, yet the Lord takes care of them.”

Observing the laughing gulls, I wonder if we worked on defending our personal boundaries more carefully, would we have less need to wrap ourselves into organizations that channel our rage into large scale violence?




Experiencing life as whole, complete, and lacking nothing. Helping the universe understand itself by being aware of what’s going on in, around, and through me.

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Dennis Williams

Dennis Williams

Experiencing life as whole, complete, and lacking nothing. Helping the universe understand itself by being aware of what’s going on in, around, and through me.

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