15 February 2008

Fish fight

Adolescent humans may have a food fight now and then, but the big, sleek seagulls of Rialto have a daily fish fight when the Pescaria closes up and the fishmongers dump their workday’s waste. It’s quite a loud and lively ruckus, a free entertainment well worth a few minutes of any Venice visitor’s time.

These handsome, well-nourished birds haunt the perimeters of the market all day long, hoping to snap up some tasty, unattended scrap. They can be quite daunting when they swoop in for a landing, their powerful white wings spread wide. (I myself – steadfast before any speeding New York taxi – have leapt out of their flight path many times.)

At closing time, they know well that the grubby Styrofoam boxes of melting ice chips hold many meaty treasures: glassy-eyed fish heads and scaly tails, fishspines with fat, pink morsels still clinging to them, limp shrimp and lifeless crabs, stripped eelskins, inky squid strings, broken clams and mussels. A veritable feast for these magnificent creatures!

In they come for the fight…

It’s every bird for himself! They shriek and squawk, bob their heads, weave and hop around, and threaten fiercely, their wings beating at their competitors’ faces. They pounce on the best and biggest bits, tear them out of one another’s sharp beaks, snatch them back with blood-chilling squeals and flee, then head back in for another round. Over and over again the battle rages.

It’s hard to tell which ones will emerge victorious – it’s not always the ones with the advantage of size. Sometimes the smallest ones are the nimblest and shrewdest. I show you one such fellow – you can see how he announces his mastery of this slippery, smelly terrain! Today he is the victor (tomorrow perhaps the vanquished?). The truth is, the whole flock goes home full of Venice’s fine, fresh fish. New York’s seabirds should be so lucky!