Seagulls flock to St. Paul’s sea of parking lots, offering a critique of land use policy and litter

13 May 2024

From the street, the area around the Midway strip malls seems full of buildings, another stretch of retail along University Avenue in St. Paul. Elevate a few dozen feet to a bird’s eye perspective, however, and a vast expanse opens up before you. Viewed from above, a large majority of the 35-acre area between University and I-94, Hamline Avenue and Pascal Street, is open asphalt, the proverbial “sea of parking.”

Perhaps that’s why I recently spent 10 minutes staring at the seagulls camping out in the parking lot. I scratched my head: It was a classic urban scene, if you don’t think about it, something many people encounter every day. 

But listening to their high-pitched squawks, I began to think about how strange it was. Like most people, I associate gulls with massive bodies of water, Great Lakes or the ocean. Instead, here they are cawing and circling around an abandoned beige 80,000 square-foot Herberger’s.    

I imagine the urban seagulls making a critique of land use policy, a performative joke lampooning the overbuilt nature of big box surface parking. At the same time, I know that there must be more to it. I decided to look into the matter more formally, and it turns out I’m not entirely alone in thinking about the oddity of parking lot gulls.

“I really like them; it reminds me of my New England childhood,” said local visual artist and gull enthusiast Carolyn Swiszcz. “I like their calls. I like the way you see them flock around, when they’re standing still, and when they’re soaring. I also have a curiosity: Do they think it’s a beach? Do they know they’re here in St. Paul?”

Swiszcz is a visual artist living in West St. Paul, but who originally hails from the Massachusetts town of New Bedford, the historic whaling city from which “Moby Dick’s” Pequod sets sail. Seagulls were part of the background for her childhood, and seeing them circling around a strip mall offers a gateway to nostalgia.  

“I’m curious, but I haven’t probed into the answers,” Swiszcz told me. “There’s a part of me that likes not knowing.”

Urban tactical omnivores

Almost to a person, birders are loath to spend much time discussing parking lot gulls. When I reached out to my aunt, active in the local Audubon Chapter, I came home disappointed. There was no great profound connection, nothing like the inter-species aesthetic critique that I was yearning for. 

The first thing birders tell you is that there’s no such thing as a “seagull.” Rather, there are many different kinds of gulls: laughing gulls, Franklin’s gulls, western gulls, herring gulls, and a dozen more. While many of the species love hanging out by the sea, the term “seagull” is neither accurate nor complete. It’s more of a Venn diagram situation, where gulls and seashores tend to greatly overlap. 

It’s not a coincidence, then, that landlubber gulls gravitate to parking lots. Gulls tend to be tactical omnivores prone to kleptoparasitism, or coordinated theft. This makes them well-adapted to the Anthropocene, and especially to scavenging food from the great endless supply of human detritus. All of this means that expanses of asphalt, vacated of everything but tumbleweed trash, are great fits for gulls’ inclinations, the bigger the better. 

Almost all the gulls you’ll see in Twin Cities’ parking lots are herring gulls (white with black-tipped wings) or ring-billed gulls (with a black ring on their beak). They like parking lots for two main reasons: First, food scraps like chip bags, sandwich wrappers and other tasty bits, are relatively abundant. Second, the area offers lengthy sight-lines. Gulls’ chief predators are either ground animals like foxes, coyotes or raccoons, or high-flying raptors like an eagle.

That doesn’t change their incongruous appearance in the human imagination.

“They also just seem so resilient,” Carolyn Swiszcz explained. “Seagulls have that negative connotation of ‘rats with wings,’ but I think they’re really beautiful. They make me think of the sea and wonder why they’re here.” 

My favorite examples of Swiszcz’s work, typically a combination of painting and mixed media, depict the mundane beauty of American mid-century cities, like an old donut shop or a pizza delivery place. Implied or depicted in the foreground of most of Swiszcz’s urban portraits sits a large, often empty, parking lot — the ubiquitous landscape. This is often where Carolyn Swiszcz finds herself most at home, inspired by overlooked idiosyncrasies of suburbia. 

For example, 10 years ago Carolyn Swiszcz collaborated with a gathering of gulls in the massive parking lot that replaced the former Signal Hills Mall, a classic mid-century retail space. The result is a short music video called Tuesday Afternoon, featuring gulls dismantling a picture of a Kmart made from neon wafer cookies. You have to see it to believe it.

“You hear them making all this noise and then they’re quiet again,” said Carolyn Swiszcz. “You just wonder what they’re talking about in this little enclave. What’s their relationship with each other? Who’s the leader? They just bring up lots of questions, which is why I like them.”

In the most thorough parking lot gull study I could find, researchers in Massachusetts spent hours staring at parking lot gulls in strip mall parking lots in Worcester, Shrewsbury, and a few other New England cities. They were researching whether or not large DO NOT FEED signs made any impact on human behavior, and the parasitic connection between gulls and the occasional bird lover that feeds them. (The study was largely inconclusive.)

This is perhaps why a company in California uses the threat of a gull invasion as a marketing tool for their service: parking lot sweeping. Unless there’s some sort of sea change in humans’ propensity to waste and disregard litter, gulls and parking lots will continue with their kleptoparasitic arrangement. When I stare at the gulls circling the empty pavement, I’ll imagine a world where parking lots are used for other purposes, ideally permeable to rainwater and habitat to a greater number of animals. 

In the meantime, like Carolyn Swiszcz, I’ll pause, listen to the distinctive squawks, and remember the ocean.

“For me it’s the unspoken feelings,” Swiszcz said. “I paint them a lot. It’s a touchstone for me. That image feels like a self portrait, a picture of me in a strip mall parking lot with seagulls. That’s where I would put myself when I’m the most me, if that makes any sense.”

Bill Lindeke

Bill Lindeke is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Geography, Environment and Society. He is the author of multiple books on Twin Cities culture and history, most recently St. Paul: an Urban Biography. Follow Bill on Twitter: @BillLindeke.

The post Seagulls flock to St. Paul’s sea of parking lots, offering a critique of land use policy and litter appeared first on MinnPost.

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