Many physiological, physical and psychological changes occur as a child becomes an adult. Fertility, maturity, independence, strength, terminal hair and more defined facial features are just some characteristics and traits that mark a person’s coming of age. These changes are not unique to humans, birds undergo similar changes as well.
I went on a cruise around Lake Toya last winter. It’s a volcanic caldera lake that never freezes – not even in the harsh winter chill of Hokkaido. Unfortunately, there was a blizzard the day I went – not only was I not allowed to get off the ferry and frolic around the forests of Nakajima Island (the island in the centre of the lake), I couldn’t even see the island clearly. Luckily, I had something else to keep me amused during the cruise.
Where you have old ladies with snacks on a boat and a flock of gulls at the pier, there’s bound to be a feeding frenzy – obachans (Japanese for old lady) can’t help feeding birds and birds just can’t get enough prawn crackers. Right before the crew set sail, a few chip packets were busted open and the feeding frenzy began.
Unsurprisingly, the gulls followed us. Until then, I thought gulls were cookie cutter – they had white and black feathers and a yellow beak, right? The gulls on our journey had all kinds of beaks – there were beaks that were black, yellow, white with a black tip and yellow with a red dot. There was just as much variation in plumage – ranging from brown to white and black, and every shade in between. Coincidentally, black beaks were paired with brown plumage and yellow beaks were paired with white and black feathers. Were they all different species characterised by different physical traits?
What I thought were different species were all Slaty-backed Gulls (Larus schistisagus) during different stages of its life cycle. The brown feathers are the equivalent of vellus hair and the red beauty spot on the beak is a mark of fertility. The brown feathers are gradually replaced with white and black feathers as the gulls age. Likewise, their beaks gradually change from black to yellow, and finally they don a red spot. The changes aren’t merely physical and physiological; as the gulls age, they also take on more responsibility and start to fend for themselves. And may I dare add temperamental changes to the list – forgive me for anthropomorphizing, but the gulls I saw that day seemed to mirror stereotypical human behaviour: juveniles excitable and crying for attention, teenagers looking smug and emo, adults somewhat calm and composed (or appearing so) and old folks just chilling without a worry in the world.