It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a
gentle sea. A mile from shore a fishing boat chummed the water. and the
word for Breakfast Flock flashed through the air, till a crowd of a
thousand seagulls came to dodge and fight for bits of food. It was another
busy day beginning.
But way off alone, out by himself beyond boat and shore, Jonathan
Livingston Seagull was practicing. A hundred feet in the sky he lowered
his webbed feet, lifted his beak, and strained to hold a painful hard
twisting curve through his wings. The curve meant that he would fly
slowly, and now he slowed until the wind was a whisper in his face, until
the ocean stood still beneath him. He narrowed his eyes in fierce
concentration, held his breath, forced one... single... more... inch...
of... curve... Then his featliers ruffled, he stalled and fell.
Seagulls, as you know, never falter, never stall. To stall in the air
is for them disgrace and it is dishonor.
But Jonathan Livingston Seagull, unashamed, stretching his wings
again in that trembling hard curve - slowing, slowing, and stalling once
more - was no ordinary bird.
Most gulls don't bother to learn more than the simplest facts of
flight - how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it
is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not
eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else. Jonathan
Livingston Seagull loved to fly.
This kind of thinking, he found, is not the way to make one's self
popular with other birds. Even his parents were dismayed as Jonathan spent
whole days alone, making hundreds of low-level glides, experimenting.
He didn't know why, for instance, but when he flew at altitudes less
than half his wingspan above the water, he could stay in the air longer,
with less effort. His glides ended not with the usual feet-down splash
into the sea, but with a long flat wake as he touched the surface with his
feet tightly streamlined against his body. When he began sliding in to
feet-up landings on the beach, then pacing the length of his slide in the
sand, his parents were very much dismayed indeed.
"Why, Jon, why?" his mother asked. "Why is it so hard to be like the
rest of the flock, Jon? Why can't you leave low flying to the pelicans,
the alhatross? Why don't you eat? Son, you're bone and feathers!"
"I don't mind being bone and feathers mom. I just want to know what I
can do in the air and what I can't, that's all. I just want to know."
"See here Jonathan " said his father not unkindly. "Winter isn't far
away. Boats will be few and the surface fish will be swimming deep. If you
must study, then study food, and how to get it. This flying business is
all very well, but you can't eat a glide, you know. Don't you forget that
the reason you fly is to eat."
Jonathan nodded obediently. For the next few days he tried to behave
like the other gulls; he really tried, screeching and fighting with the
flock around the piers and fishing boats, diving on scraps of fish and
bread. But he couldn't make it work.
It's all so pointless, he thought, deliberately dropping a hard-won
anchovy to a hungry old gull chasing him. I could be spending all this
time learning to fly. There's so much to learn!
It wasn't long before Jonathan Gull was off by himself again, far out
at sea, hungry, happy, learning.
The subject was speed, and in a week's practice he learned more about
speed than the fastest gull alive.
From a thousand feet, flapping his wings as hard as he could, he
pushed over into a blazing steep dive toward the waves, and learned why
seagulls don't make blazing steep pewer-dives. In just six seconds he was
moving seventy miles per hour, the speed at which one's wing goes unstable
on the upstroke.
Time after time it happened. Careful as he was, working at the very
peak of his ability, he lost control at high speed.
Climb to a thousand feet. Full power straight ahead first, then push
over, flapping, to a vertical dive. Then, every time, his left wing
stalled on an upstroke, he'd roll violently left, stall his right wing
recovering, and flick like fire into a wild tumbling spin to the right.
He couldn't be careful enough on that upstroke. Ten times he tried,
and all ten times, as he passed through seventy miles per hour, he burst
into a churning mass of feathers, out of control, crashing down into the
The key, he thought at last, dripping wet, must be to hold the wings
still at high speeds - to flap up to fifty and then hold the wings still.
From two thousand feet he tried again, rolling into his dive, beak
straight down, wings full out and stable from the moment he passed fifty
miles per hour. It took tremendous strength, but it worked. In ten seconds
he had blurred through ninety miles per hour. Jonathan had set a world
speed record for seagulls!
But victory was short-lived. The instant he began his pullout, the
instant he changed the angle of his wings, he snapped into that same
terrible uncontrolled disaster, and at ninety miles per hour it hit him
like dynamite. Jonathan Seagull exploded in midair and smashed down into a
When he came to, it was well after dark, and he floated in moonlight
on the surface of the ocean. His wings were ragged bars of lead, but the
weight of failure was even heavier on his back. He wished, feebly, that
the weight could be just enough to drug him gently down to the bottom, and
end it all.
As he sank low in the water, a strange hollow voice sounded within
him. There's no way around it. I am a seagull. I am limited by my nature.
If I were meant to learn so much about flying, I'd have charts for brains.
If I were meant to fly at speed, I'd have a falcon's short wings, and live
on mice instead of fish. My father was right. I must forget this
foolishness. I must fly home to the Flock and be content as I am, as a
poor limited seagull.
The voice faded, and Jonathan agreed. The place for a seagull at
night is on shore, and from this moment forth, he vowed, he would be a
normal gull. It would make everyone happier.
He pushed wearily away from the dark water and flew toward the land,
grateful for what he had learned about work-saving low-altitude flying.
But no, he thought. I am done with the way I was, I am done with
everything I learned. I am a seagull like every other seagull, and I will
fly like one. So he climbed painfully to a hundred feet and flapped his
wings harder, pressing for shore.
He felt better for his decision to be just another one of the Flock.
There would be no ties now to the force that had driven him to learn,
there would be no more challenge and no more failure. And it was pretty,
just to stop thinking, and fly through the dark, toward the lights above
Dark! The hollow voice cracked in alarm. Seagulls never fly in the
Jonathan was not alert to listen. It's pretty, he thought. The moon
and the lights twinkling on the water, throwing out little beacon-trails
through the night, and all so peaceful and still...
Get down! Seagulls never fly in the dark! If you were meant to fly in
the dark, you'd have the eyes of an owl! You'd have charts for brains!
You'd have a falcon's short wings!
There in the night, a hundred feet in the air, Jonathan Livingston
Seagull - blinked. His pain, his resolutions, vanished.
Short wings. A falcon's short wings!
That's the answer! What a fool I've been! All I need is a tiny little
wing, all I need is to fold most of my wings and fly on just the tips
alone! Short wings!
He climbed two thousand feet above the black sea, and without a
moment for thought of failure and death, he brought his forewings tightly
in to his body, left only the narrow swept daggers of his wingtips
extended into the wind, and fell into a vertical dive.
The wind was a monster roar at his head. Seventy miles per hour,
ninety, a hundred and twenty and faster still. The wing-strain now at a
hundred and forty miles per hour wasn't nearly as hard as it had been
before at seventy, and with the faintest twist of his wingtips he eased
out of the dive and shot above the waves, a gray cannonball under the
He closed his eyes to slits against the wind and rejoiced. A hundred
forty miles per hour! And under control! If I dive from five thousand feet
instead of two thousand, I wonder how fast..
His vows of a moment before were forgotten, swept away in that great
swift wind. Yet he felt guiltless, breaking the promises he had made
himself. Such promises are only for the gulls that accept the ordinary.
One who has touched excellence in his learning has no need of that kind of
By sunup, Jonathan Gull was practicing again. From five thousand feet
the fishing boats were specks in the flat blue water, Breakfast Flock was
a faint cloud of dust motes, circling.
He was alive, trembling ever so slightly with delight, proud that his
fear was under control. Then without ceremony he hugged in his forewings,
extended his short, angled wingtips, and plunged direcfly toward the sea.
By the time he passed four thousand feet he had reached terminal velocity,
the wind was a solid beating wall of sound against which he could move no
faster. He was flying now straight down, at two hundred fourteen miles per
hour. He swallowed, knowing that if his wings unfolded at that speed be'd
be blown into a million tiny shreds of seagull. But the speed was power,
and the speed was joy, and the speed was pure beauty.
He began his pullout at a thousand feet, wingtips thudding and
blurring in that gigatitic wind, the boat and the crowd of gulls tilting
and growing meteor-fast, directly in his path.
He couldn't stop; he didn't know yet even how to turn at that speed.
Collision would be instant death.
And so he shut his eyes.
It happened that morning, then, just after sunrise, that Ionathan
Livingston Seagull fired directly through the center of Breakfast Flock,
ticking off two hundred twelve miles per hour, eyes closed, in a great
roaring shriek of wind and feathers. The Gull of Fortune smiled upon him
this once, and no one was killed.
By the time he had pulled his beak straight up into the sky he was
still scorching along at a hundred and sixty miles per hour. When he had
slowed to twenty and stretched his wings again at last, the boat was a
crumb on the sea, four thousand feet below.
His thought was triumph. Terminal velocity! A seagull at two hundred
fourteen miles per hour! It was a breakthrough, the greatest single moment
in the history of the Flock, and in that moment a new age opened for
Jonathan Gull. Flying out to his lonely practice area, folding his wings
for a dive from eight thousand feet, he set himself at once to discover
how to turn.
A single wingtip feather, he found, moved a fraction of an inch,
gives a smooth sweeping curve at tremendous speed. Before he learned this,
however, he found that moving more than one feather at that speed will
spin you like a ritIe ball... and Jonathan had flown the first aerobatics
of any seagull on earth.
He spared no time that day for talk with other gulls, but flew on
past sunset. He discovered the loop, the slow roll, the point roll, the
inverted spin, the gull bunt, the pinwheel.
When Jonathan Seagull joined the Flock on the beach, it was full
night. He was dizzy and terribly tired. Yet in delight he flew a loop to
landing, with a snap roll just before touchdown. When they hear of it, he
thought, of the Breakthrough, they'll be wild with joy. How much more
there is now to living! Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the
fishing boats, there's a reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of
ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and
intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!
The years ahead hummed and glowed with promise.
The gulls were flocked into the Council Gathering when he landed, and
apparently had been so flocked for some time. They were, in fact, waiting.
"Jonathan Livingston Seagull! Stand to Center!" The Elder's words
sounded in a voice of highest ceremony. Stand to Center meant only great
shame or great honor. Stand to Center for Honor was the way the gulls'
foremost leaders were marked. Of course, he thought, the Breakfast Flock
this morning; they saw the Breakthrough! But I want no honors. I have no
wish to be leader. I want only to share what I've found, to show those
horizons out ahead for us all. He stepped forward.
"Jonathan Livingston Seagull," said the Elder, "Stand to Center for
Shame in the sight of your fellow gulls!"
It felt like being hit with a board. His knees went weak, his
feathers sagged, there was roaring in his ears. Centered for shame?
Impossible! The Breakthrough! They can't understand! They're wrong,
"... for his reckless irresponsibility " the solemn voice intoned,
"violating the dignity and tradition of the Gull Family..."
To be centered for shame meant that he would be cast out of gull
society, banished to a solitary life on the Far Cliffs.
"... one day Jonathan Livingston Seagull, you shall learn that
irresponsibility does not pay. Life is the unknown and the unknowable,
except that we are put into this world to eat, to stay alive as long as we
A seagull never speaks back to the Council Flock, but it was
Jonathan's voice raised. "Irresponsibility? My brothers!" he cried. "Who
is more responsible than a gull who finds and follows a meaning, a higher
purpose for life? For a thousand years we have scrabbled after fish heads,
but now we have a reason to live - to learn, to discover, to be free! Give
me one chance, let me show you what I've found..."
The Flock might as well have been stone.
"The Brotherhood is broken," the gulls intoned together, and with one
accord they solemnly closed their ears and turned their backs upon him.
Jonathan Seagull spent the rest of his days alone, but he flew way
out beyond the Far Cliffs. His one sorrow was not solituile, it was that
other gulls refused to believe the glory of flight that awaited them; they
refused to open their eyes and see. He learned more each day. He learned
that a streamlined high-speed dive could bring him to find the rare and
tasty fish that schooled ten feet below the surface of the ocean: he no
longer needed fishing boats and stale bread for survival. He learned to
sleep in the air, setting a course at night across the offshore wind,
covering a hundred miles from sunset to sunrise. With the same inner
control, he flew through heavy sea-fogs and climbed above them into
dazzling clear skies... in the very times when every other gull stood on
the ground, knowing nothing but mist and rain. He learned to ride the high
winds far iniand, to dine there on delicate insects.
What he had once hoped for the Flock, he now gained for himself
alone; he learned to fly, and was not sorry for the price that he had
paid. Jonathan Scagull discovered that boredom and fear and anger are the
reasons that a gull's life is so short, and with these gone from his
thought, he lived a long fine life indeed.
They came in the evening, then, and found Ionathan gliding peaceful
and alone through his beloved sky. The two gulls that appeared at his
wings were pure as starlight, and the glow from them was gentle and
friendly in the high night air. But most lovely of all was the skill with
which they flew, their wingtips moving a precise and constant inch from
his own. Without a word, Jonathan put them to his test, a test that no
gull had ever passed. He twisted his wings, slowed to a single mile per
hour above stall. The two radiant birds slowed with him, smoothly, locked
in position. They knew about slow flying.
He folded his wings, rolled and dropped in a dive to a hundred ninety
miles per hour. They dropped with him, streaking down in flawless
At last he turned that speed straight up into a long vertical
slow-roll. They rolled with him, smiling.
He recovered to level flight and was quiet for a time before he
spoke. "Very well," he said, "who are you?"
"We're from your Flock, Jonathan. We are your brothers." The words
were strong and calm. "We've come to take you higher, to take you home."
"Home I have none. Flock I have none. I am Outcast. And we fly now at
the peak of the Great Mountain Wind. Beyond a few hundred feet, I can lift
this old body no higher."
"But you can Jonathan. For you have learned. One school is finished,
and the time has come for another to begin."
As it had shined across him all his life, so understanding lighted
that moment for Jonathan Seagull. They were right. He could fly higher,
and it was time to go home.
He gave one last look across the sky, across that magnificent silver
land where he had learned so much.
"I'm ready " he said at last.
And Jonathan Livingston Seagull rose with the two starbright gulls to
disappear into a perfect dark sky.