We’ve been observing the local wildlife our little corner of Portugal, and have noticed a few peculiarities. Let’s talk about the birds and the . . . er . . . flies.
Setúbal doesn’t have mosquitoes. Nor does it have gnats or no-see-ums or any of those creatures you can feel all over your body but not find so that they drive you mad whenever you go out. What it does have are flies. Big, meaty flies.
Furthermore, as those of you who’ve traveled in Europe know, there are no window screens on this continent. A window is open to anything physically capable of coming in. In our apartment, we have full size sliding glass doors in lieu of windows – and no screens.
Fortunately, the flies don’t swarm. They cruise the skies in ones and twos, behaving in a civilized and organized manner. They fly in quite unimpeded and cruise around the living room showing off their aerobatics. The open glass doors on opposite sides of the condo create cross breezes on which they coast along practicing barrel rolls and loop-the-loops, Immelman turns and split esses, then flying close formation around the apartment.
Some of them are of a warlike bent, and its best to just sit quietly and pretend you’re not there when they come through. They ram their way around the room, buzzing at freight train decibel levels, crashing into walls, ceiling, furniture and people. I had one slam into my face the other day then back up and come at me again. He kept ramming me until I hid under the sofa to get away from him.
My theory is the flies are a new kind of drone being tested by NATO. They’ve been breeding these insects for several years at a top-secret research facility cleverly disguised as a garbage dump, and have now produced a Superfly (apologies to the Blaxploitation film movement of the 1970’s) capable of conducting organized clandestine warfare. Portugal is being used as the testing site because it has the best rice pudding in Europe.
Think I’m joking? Not a bit of it. You’ll see. Before long the skies will be filled with flotillas of flies flying through our force fields in formation. Say that five times real fast.
We live a block away from a fishing harbor in one direction and a city in the other. This fact creates a clash of two distinct avian civilizations – seagulls and pigeons. The pigeons are constantly in evidence flying pretty much at random. This creates a potentially major problem. Remember about our wide open screenless glass doors? Guess what happens?
Ever have a large pigeon fly into your living room? I mean, a really big pigeon? Like the Hulk Hogan of pigeons? And it lands in the middle of the floor right in front of the sofa?
It’s pretty common here. Not long ago, we were in a coffee shop with open windows when one of them came in, flapped in several customers’ faces and landed on a table causing the two women sitting there to scream and run frantically for the exit, knocking over several other tables on the way. Then the bird flew up into the shelving behind the serving counter, knocking bags of coffee and supplies all over the place.
The staff, to their credit, swung into action, cornering it to stop it from completely destroying the place. A young lady working the register waited for it to settle down, then grabbed a towel, stepped quietly up to the creature, and threw the towel over it. She reached down and grasped its body firmly in her hands, holding it out in front of her, then took it outside to let it go.
A few days ago, I walked into one of the small groceries that open onto the streets every couple of blocks, and there was a pigeon wandering around the place as if looking to buy a takeout dinner. No one bothered to disturb it; I carefully stepped over it to get to the cheese counter. Eventually it toddled on out the door and flew away; maybe they didn’t have its brand of cigarettes.
These examples prepared us when a giant pigeon came through in the sliding glass door into our living room. You have two or three choices when this happens. One, you can try to negotiate, explaining to the bird that it was in the wrong building, pointing out which way the exit is, suggesting it might prefer to find some other lodging. This works about as well as you’d expect it to.
Then there’s aforementioned catch and release method, which works pretty well if the thing will only stop flying up and ramming its body into what it doesn’t realize is not the open sky but a closed glass door. A few moments of this made it clear it was unlikely to realize the futility of this activity in time to keep from bashing its birdbrain out of its head.
The third course of action is to see the bird is committed to believing that one particular glass door is the one that’s going to give way and allow it a clear takeoff out of the house. So, I proceeded to sneak quietly to the side of the door and use a broom handle to slide that door open. Thankfully, the broom handle connected, the door slid open without disturbance and the freaked out pigeon tore away into open air.
Nevertheless, we’ve kept a close eye ever since on whichever large sized bird flies over our balcony.
The other sight to see is when the fishing boats moor in the harbor after a morning’s work. The fishermen are charged with carefully sorting and folding up their nets. As they work, they extricate the various trash fish and throw them to the flock of seagulls hovering nearby.
There’s hardly a more stunning sight than a thousand or so frenzied seagulls fighting over one small fish. One of them grabs onto it and the rest tear at his wings and tail. When he turns his head to fight off one of the attackers, he drops the fish and another dives in to grab it. This one is then attacked by the rest of the horde; and so it goes until the boatman throws another fish out. It’s hard in all this frenzy to see if any of them actually manage to secure the fish. I’m not sure any of them ever eat one. In the meantime, there’s a hysterical cloud of feathers shrieking at an ungodly pitch.
Now that I think about it, it looks kind of like polo. I wonder if that’s how the sport got started. Or for that matter, a grade school soccer game. A bunch of kids running aimlessly around a playing field for all they’re worth while the ball rolls undetected out of bounds.
Every so often in the seagull feeding frenzy, one of the bigger and presumably smarter birds gets the fish and swallows it whole. As often as not, the fish is too big to get completely down the bird’s gullet and it stands there choking with the flock pecking away at its stock-still body. It’s kind of disgusting and beautiful at the same time, if that makes any sense. Nature in all its terrible glory.
Barbara and I were taking our usual stroll the other day down by the docks, passing under the cloud of seagulls on our way to a favorite restaurant for lunch. We had just gotten beyond the harbor and were heading back into town, when Barbara announces —
“You’ve been tagged.”
“Excuse me?” I couldn’t see what she was talking about.
“There’s a yellow streak all the way down the center of your back.”
I was seriously offended. To find out after all these years that your wife thinks you’re a coward.
She then explained that a seagull had defecated on my back, which, given her previous comment, I took as something of a relief. I gave her my handkerchief, and she dipped it in the water and did her best to clean it off. Nevertheless, in the restaurant, I insisted on having a chair with my back to the wall, and I stayed there without moving for the entire meal.
I’ll never be able to eat crab legs again.
While we’re on the subject of droppings, I’ll point out there’s another thing Portugal doesn’t have – Canada geese. I want to state here and now how much I hate Canada geese. In North America, they foul our yards, our parks, our sidewalks, and no one is allowed to touch them. I don’t care what ecological niche they serve. I don’t care if the food chain collapses without them; after all, we’ll always have PopTarts. Geese are far more trouble than they’re worth. I’d be happy if every hunter on the continent – heck, on the planet — went on an extermination campaign to get rid of them. I’m sorry, I just don’t equate it with wiping out the buffalo or the Bengal tiger.
At the very least, send them back to Canada and make them stay there. If Donald Trump wants to deal with the immigration problem, I say start with Canada geese. Build a wall to keep them out.
Sure, here in Portugal there are pigeons and seagulls, and dogs and cats running free for that matter; but compared to Denver, Colorado, the streets of Portugal look and smell positively pristine. You can be as smug as you want about little Portugal compared with all the big deal countries. But we don’t have geese or mosquitos or no-see-yums here.
A SEA SIGHT TO SEE BY THE SEA SIDE
In the morning here, the seagulls gather for their daily period of screaming and fighting, only to see the fishing boats pulling away from them to head out to sea. There’s a shocked, eerie kind of silence as the distance grows between them, while the birds sit there unsure of what to do. Then the smarter guys rise into the air, hover for a few moments and fly after the boats. Seeing them, the rest of the flock gets the idea and tears off behind the leaders.
The shrieking begins, the moment of silence is broken, and each of the boats sails out under an accompanying cloud of feathers for the rest of the day. One wonders how the fisherman can stand it, may even damage their hearing over the years. But I suppose they accept it as part of their lives. As long as the gulls are there, the fish are there; that’s the good news. The partnership’s been going for thousands of years. A pleasure to watch on a sunny morning standing on the edge of the water.