Ah, the joy of hearing birds singing! For centuries composers & poets have responded to birdsong. There are birdsong references in Vivaldi and Beethoven. In a poem, Walt Witman imagines a young version of himself discovering his poetic voice by writing out the song of a Mockingbird. Then there are seagulls with their rowdy squawks and screeches …
To be fair to seagulls, they may not sing harmoniously and they may sometimes appear aggressive, but this hasn’t excluded seagulls from inspiring writers, artists and performers. Take the European Gull Screeching Championship, for example. Here is an entertaining video of the first European Championship at Adinkerke, Belgium, on 24 March 1999.
Hilarious, isn’t it? Nonetheless, behind the frivolity, there is a serious message. Concerned about public perceptions of seagulls, Claude Willaert organized the 1st Belgian Gull-Screeching Championship In 2018. For Willaert, gulls are often perceived as a nuisance, whereas gulls battle to find natural food and suitable natural nesting sites due to human encroachment and modern beach management & usage. Willbaert’s idea took off. Soon there were gull screeching events in neighbouring countries.
Inspired by the way his idea took wing, Willbaert initiated the annual European Gull-Screeching Championship. Due to the pandemic, the 2023 contest, held on 23 April in De Panne, a coastal city in Belgium, was the third. It was also the biggest. Drawing a field of 50 entrants and a large number of spectators, the competition has become a mini festival. Here is a video clip of this year’s event, which was won by Jarmo Slutter from Eindhoven, Holland.
Contrary to appearances, it’s not all fun and games. As the event’s official website states: “Scientific observation is requested if you want to imitate the sound of seagulls properly. If you take the time to observe them well, you will start caring for them”. Entrants have one chance before a panel of five judges, all of them seagull enthusiasts and experts. The contestants are judged for the accuracy of imitation of the sound of a gull (75%) and for evoking the mannerism of a gull (25%).
Jarmo Slutter, this year’s winner, explained that he happened to imitate a seagull once. His friends were so impressed that they looked for a suitable platform for him to demonstrate his talent. Once they found the European Gull Screeching championship, Slutter was game enough to turn up in a seagull costume, though he had no expectation of success.
Jan Seys, president of the judges & head of communications of the Flanders Marine Institute said: “We thought, why not get more sympathy for those seagulls because they are part of the coast, there is no coast without seagulls.”
In art, literature, and music, from Rachmininov to Richard Bach (Johnathan Livingston Seagull), seagulls tend to represent freedom and the yearning for freedom. Seagulls are seen as the mavericks of the bird world, and this maverick spirit animates the seagull screeching contests. Besides, the contests are great fun.
Seagulls do not intrude on human seaside activities; it is humans that have encroached on the natural domain of gulls. Let’s hope that the gull-screeching competitions thrive as they attempt to counter the view that seagulls are pests. In this spirit, here is Be from Neil Diamond’s soundtrack to the Jonathan Livingston Seagull movie.
If you would like to see more from European Gull Screeching Championship, you can also visit their official website for more information.