The Castelli di Cannero were built by a couple of local ruffians at the start of the 1400s, about the same time that Carmine Superiore got its church. They were constructed on two small islands off the western shore of Lago Maggiore and their ruins can still be seen today from the lakeside road between Carmine and Cannero (or from the Via delle Genti sentiero from Cannero to Cannobio). The islands attract many waterborne visitors in the summer months but before Easter and after September 1st they are usually undisturbed by the (mostly) half-naked sunbathers with their portable barbecues, their boom-boxes and their begged-stolen-or-borrowed flashy motor cruisers.
In spring, the Castelli are invaded instead by a colony of seagulls, who, it has to be said, are just as noisy as their human counterparts with their spectacular aerial displays, their groups of aloof adolescents and tribes of toddling chicks.
It was in June of 2004, that M. and a five-months pregnant proto-Mama took to our boat to pay the Castelli a visit. There we disembarked and lounged around in the sunshine a while (oh halcyon days!) enjoying the absence of our fellow humans and trying not to intrude upon the doings of the birds. Inevitably, M. decided he needed to seek a quiet place for some doings of his own and when he came back he was unusually animated. A fledgling gull hurt among rocks inaccessible from the beach. Our aluminium Canadian instantly transformed itself into a doughty lifeboat and off we went as animal rescue warriors to investigate.
When we reached the spot, the bird was already making its escape by water. One wing was dragging, and it seemed clear that it was useless, for surely the bird would be making its escape by air if it could. When it saw us it started to swim for its little life.
Our hastily-formed plan was for M. to drive the boat close enough for me to reach over the side (despite my five-months bump) and grab the seagull. What might happen next we hadn’t thought through clearly. As we carefully manoeuvered the boat closer and closer to the youngster, a flight of dive-bombing relatives took off screaming from the walls of the Castelli and we were hounded constantly as we tried to reach the gull. Finally I got him, pulled him into the boat with his webbed feet still paddling desperately and flung a beach towel over his head. At once he was calm and quiet. I felt a bit like a policeman smuggling a celebrity criminal out of court to a waiting car as we belted back to Carmine beach as fast as Fulmina the boat could carry us. Fulmina was named ironically. It took a while.
Leaving M. to drag the boat out of the water, I started up from the beach with the gull clutched rather precariously to my bump. Hearing the noise of the road ahead, he started to squirm. In a panic he flexed his good wing. It was surprisingly strong. I lost my grip momentarily. Then his head popped out from under the towel and a beak instantly flashed for my eye. He missed by less than inches. Ungrateful rat-of-the-skies, I thought.
Finally and with much ado, we had him up the hill and into the unrenovated second kitchen of our house (100-year-old cement floor, a long bench, M’s desk, a heinous moss-green 1970s armchair – still, unhappily, there – and a handmade inglenook seat). The young gull skittered under the bench (even he had the good taste to scorn the armchair, initially) and he sat there with his back to us, sulking. Actually, he was probably scared half out of his wits and thought, quite sensibly, that if he couldn’t see us we couldn’t see him.
But we could see him. And as we looked at him it became clear that what might happen next hadn’t been thought through. At all. A long line of questions started to make itself apparent, snaking through our minds : what do baby seagulls eat? are they dangerous? could they harbour germs potentially harmful to the baby? do they need a pond to swim on and how do you stop them pooping all over the floor? And, more to the point, what was the extent of this particular seagull’s injuries and would we be able to find someone at 6pm on a Saturday afternoon to give us some answers?
The answer to the last question was, of course, no, and we had to wait until the following Monday to discover (after several futile phone calls to local vets) that the people we needed were the Corpo Forestale, or, more specifically, their designated veterinarian, one Dr Galligarich, whose office was in Stresa more than 50 clicks away.
And that the Italian word for seagull is gabbiano.
In the meantime, we fed the seagull pieces of choice tinned tuna from outstretched fingers and tried to avoid the worst of the beak. And we named him Jonathan (what else?).
Monday afternoon came after about 45 hours (as it would), and we found ourselves in Dr Galligarich’s waiting room with the seagull in a large cardboard box. We felt slightly out of place with a poodle on one side, an insane kitten-on-acid on the other and a fairly large rottweiler eyeing the box tensely from the furthest corner. Then two uniformed officers of the Corpo Forestale arrived carrying a tiny turtle with a severed leg, and we noticed behind a partition a dozen or more miscellaneous chicks in an incubator, and felt relieved to know we were in the right place.
The good doctor himself turned out to be a lover of all creatures wild and in need of TLC. At home, it transpired, he was currently keeping a marten upstairs, an owl in the study, an aged donkey in the garage, an aviary full of hawks and, to cap it all, a much-celebrated eagle in a hastily-built outhouse. Oh yes, and there was a baby wild boar roaming his driveway (but nothing surprised the postman any more). Dr Galligarich rebroke Jonathan’s wing and strapped it up, although it was already, “a fairly old break that might never mend, so don’t hold your breath”.
“And by the way, it’s probably not a boy but a girl.”
“Oh yes, and don’t worry, they eat anything…”
Over the next few weeks we did hold our breath and tried to stop Jonathan, I mean Johanna pecking away or getting wet the bandages that supposedly immobilised the broken wing and protected the open wound. Problem was, she was determined to bathe at every opportunity – the first being a very small bowl of water put down for a friend’s dog. The second problem was that as soon as she regained some measure of energy, she decided to continue to learn how to fly. Every minute of every day was spent, when not bathing or eating, finding a raised spot, pooping, and then launching off into mid-air before crashing to the ground always on the damaged wing. The heinous 1970s armchair suddenly came into its own as the launch-pad of choice and we supplied a landing pad made of the box that Etna, our wood-fired stove, arrived in (remember I said how useful large cartons can be?). Jonathan, I mean Johanna would hop up onto the hearth, from there onto the inglenook seat, and onto the arm and finally the back of the armchair. She’d poop (as I said), then make a strange squeak before crashing to the ground again. I’d say she was perhaps a year old before the sad news finally sank in : she would never be able to fly. And worse, that she was set to spend the rest of her natural life with us, looking down on the lake from on high, not from the air but from the rock.
So we all settled down to our routine together. I got more and more pregnant. We acquired a kitten who was promptly persecuted by Jonathan, I mean Johanna, oh dammit! the Gabbiano. The bird decided that she did like the 1970s armchair after all and it became her nest for a while.
We dug a deep pool in one of the streams that runs through Carmine, and the bird was to be seen parading to and from her bath once a day, often followed, like the Pied Piper, by a trail of onlookers young and old. The Gabbiano started to become famous. People would knock on our door and ask if we were the ones with a pet seagull, and could they take a photograph. Yes and No was always the answer. Always in that order. And by the way, she wasn’t a pet. A resident, perhaps. An ungrateful lout of a teenager, yes! Pet? Definitely not!
Kitten-baiting was one of her favourite pastimes. A twitching tail carelessly dangling from a chair would be nipped within seconds. Kitten toys (and baby toys, I hasten to add) would be stolen and pecked to destruction. The Gabbiano would even lie in wait for the kitten in order to give him a jolly good peck and then run away, almost, we thought, giggling. The kitten decided the top of Mathilda, our 6-foot-tall wood-burner, was the best place to be.
Through the winter, the bird lived in the outhouse and on the terrace. In the evenings she would come into the kitchen to scrounge anything that might be going, particularly in the way of high-quality Parmesan. It transpired that while most herring gulls eat anything, our herring gull (for herring gull she was) ate almost exclusively fresh fish, and the more expensive the better. Sardines, whitebait and anchovies were her staples, with a little bit of cat fur thrown in whenever she could get hold of the kitten.
After eating, and catching a few tossed wine corks for fun, she would find the widest space in the kitchen from which she could see all four compass points. Satisfied that she had us all covered, she would pull one leg up and tuck it into her breast feathers, then turn her head backwards and tuck it under her wing. We had become her family, and we were on watch, so she could get some shuteye.
AJ was born and the kitten threw up every time he cried (which was a lot). The Gabbiano continued to live in the outhouse and guard the Rock from her perch atop a planter on the terrace. She devastated my patio plants with her pecking and her picking. Visitors to Carmine would stop to stare at her, and I was more than once embarrassed to find myself being photographed in my pyjamas as I came out onto the terrace to say good morning to our celebrity.
Spring came and then summer, and the Gabbiano’s feathers changed to adolescent spotty. She started to make a strangled sort of cry, most frequent when other gulls could be seen wheeling over the lake. Her beak changed colour and became much, much harder. On our daily walks to the stream, her escort, whoever it was, would always carry a stick to fend off tourist dogs (frequently and illegally off the leash). We needn’t have bothered. The Gabbiano became famous that year from Cannobio to Cannero, in Germany, England, France and Italy, for besting several canine intruders, including a very big German shepherd whose over-curious nose she bit and sent him whimpering back to his master (poor, gentle creature).
AJ grew, and after no time at all, it seemed, he was standing with his nose pressed against the fireguard that separated him from the outhouse, and saying his first word, “Nano” – his version of Gabbiano, and a general word for all birds until about his second birthday.
While the Gabbiano no longer tried to fly, she still poo-poo’d. Quite a lot. And cleaning up after her as well as a baby and the chickens was becoming a bit of a bore, so we decided that she was old enough to leave home and take a room in Palazzo Pollo, with the chickens as room-mates. M. dug a very deep pool and connected a supply of fresh bathwater from the nearest stream. She now had 20 times more space and 20 more friends to persecute. She was delighted. A second winter arrived, and we were able to report to Dr Galligarich that she was more healthy and seemingly more contented than ever before. She bathed daily. She ate well. Her broken wing was carried high against her body rather than dragging on the ground. She came out of the run when the chickens did. She fossicked around just like the chickens did. She pecked and squabbled with the best of them. She was undisputed at the top of the pecking order.
But when trouble came and the chickens headed instinctively for the shelter of nearby trees and bushes, the Gabbiano followed her own seagull instincts and turned into a statue. It didn’t help. She was a sitting duck for the hawk that struck her down. M. and AJ were nearby but didn’t make it in time. The last thing she did was to peck M.
January 3rd was the first anniversary of her loss, and complete strangers still come to us asking if they can meet Jonathan the famous Carmine gull. Our lives are less glamorous without her, but we are glad that she spent a couple of summers with us, and we are glad to think that she could now be in gull heaven, wheeling and soaring through the skies on perfect wings.