Over the past 150 years man’s actions have thrown some species of gulls totally out of context with their world, yet they have managed not only to survive but, for better or worse, to multiply at a rate that matches man’s own.
Nature fitted the forty-four species of gulls to be efficient predators and scavengers, and for hundreds of years they lived the precarious existence of wild things, foraging along the shore and feeding on birds’ eggs and nestlings. When man arrived on the scene, they rapidly learned to follow the fishing boats and even went into the fields to eat the insects turned up by the plow—at one point saving an entire harvest by consuming swarms of grasshoppers.
The nineteenth-century craze for plumage on women’s fashions nearly extirpated several kinds of gulls from our coasts. At last naturalists and concerned laymen established bird-protection societies to halt the indiscriminate slaughter. Then a new element entered the scene: open garbage dumps. The graceful predators became omnipresent scavengers whose population explosion for a time seemed to have no end; whose range extended year after year; whose feet carried contaminants from dumps to reservoirs; who endangered aircraft; and who destroyed colonies of terns and puffins by consuming their eggs and young.
Man’s latest relations with gulls have been programs aimed at poisoning them and smashing their eggs. Yet the gull remains the attractive, remarkable bird it always was. It is only man that has turned it into a pest.
In addition to relating this pointed ecological case history, Gulls presents a handsomely illustrated account of the gull’s natural life, highlighting those seen in America—the familiar Herring Gull, the Great Black-backed, the Ring-billed, the Kittiwake and the Laughing Gull—with vivid accounts of the author’s trips to gull islands, both to watch the egg-destruction program and to study gull colonies.
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We were a curiously mixed group who set forth one morning in mid-June aboard a lobster boat into Maine’s Muscongus Bay, with the means of slaughter and renewal heaped around us on the open deck. A mild breeze scarcely troubled the bay’s surface. The early-morning fog dissipated itself in convoluted wisps, tinctured gold now by the pour of light from the climbing sun. Our boat moved down the bay, dropping astern the inshore islands, which were covered with dense spruce stands of an unvarying dark green. The large skiff we towed alternately lunged and heeled over in our wake.
Our destination was Eastern Egg Rock at the mouth of the bay, but our purpose was double-edged. Steve Kress, who stood across the deck from me, his legs slightly apart and bent to absorb the lift of our buoyant craft, is an ornithologist. A tam-o’-shanter sat rakishly on his thick curly hair, and his face was bright with the thrill of something ventured. The three college students who were his assistants, two women and a tall young man, leaned on the gunwales or sat on the stacks of lumber and ceramic chimney tiles near him.
“It will be fantastic if it works,” Kress was saying. “We think it will work. A lot of thought and preparation has gone into it.”
Kress, who is on the staff of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and spends the summer months at the Audubon Camp of Maine, had devised a plan to restore the common puffin, that marvelous little “sea parrot” with the bizarre, multicolored bill, to Muscongus Bay, from which it disappeared at the turn of the century. Some large puffin colonies remain off the northern coasts of Canada and Europe. But the bird now nests in rocky burrows on only two small, remote island colonies along the East Coast of the United States—Matinicus Rock, off Rockland, Maine, and Machias Seal Island, to which Canada holds a disputed claim. On this day Kress and the students were taking to Eastern Egg Rock the stuff with which to fashion puffin burrows. In a few weeks Kress would fly to Canada and receive from Canadian wildlife authorities sixty-five puffin chicks, removed for the purpose from flourishing colonies off Newfoundland.
“These tiles are seven inches square, and about four feet long, just long enough to make a good puffin burrow,” Kress continued. “We want to start these chicks in artificial burrows so we can feed them and know just where they are. There’ll be wire covers over the ends of the tiles to keep out gulls. And we’ll hand-feed the chicks with smelts that we can buy frozen. Puffins come back to breed on the island where they were raised. We’re hoping that when these chicks mature—in three or four years—they’ll come back to breed on Eastern Egg Rock and maybe found a new colony here.”
Historically, this has been a productive area for sea birds. I knew Wreck Island, which we were just passing, for I had explored it a decade earlier while I was at the Audubon Camp, which lies at the head of the bay. Wreck Island is a boreal jungle, a green riot of ferns and shrubs in a congestion of trees, heavily fertilized by the nesting great blue herons and black-crowned night herons. Its crepuscular interior is harsh with the incessant fronk and quowk of the agitated birds. But else where in the bay the nesting islands are dominated by gulls—the Herring Gull, which is the common “seagull” of the East Coast, and in increasing numbers its larger relative, the Great Black-backed Gull.
And that was why we had another party aboard. Its leader was Frank Gramlich of the Division of Wildlife Services of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The division’s name is something of a euphemism because the services it performs have mostly to do with the elimination of birds and mammals inimical to what man thinks are his best interests. It is the successor, its image refurbished, to the old Predator and Rodent Control branch of the Fish and Wildlife Service, and it has stamped out unwanted creatures of all kinds, from mountain lions, coyotes and gophers in the western wilderness to rats and pigeons in the less exalted wilds of eastern cities. On this day Gramlich was on a “gull control” mission to Eastern Egg Rock.
One would look a long time to find a man less likely to fit the mold of a wildlife exterminator. No one who knows him says a mean word about Frank Gramlich. He has the face of Huck Finn sagging a little at the prospect of middle age, his boyish smile is shy but infectious, his nature is unfailingly considerate. He is alert to the glories of wild things and the needless abuses to which man has subjected them. On the way to the island now he was saying that it was an old dream of his to see the rattlesnake someday reintroduced to Maine, from which man had extirpated it long ago. The state, he said, was the poorer for losing it; there was room here for rattlesnakes, as well as for puffins, bears, gulls and coyotes.
Our boat, rising now on low swells and setting gently down in broad, transient hollows, told us we had come to the region where the bay grades furtively into the sea. The cliffs of Monhegan, or else it was a remnant fogbank, rose from the distant horizon. A sail drifted leisurely between the islands like a white cloud. Gulls went by, gliding down long slopes of air, and with a graceful wingbeat or two, lifting to glide again. Eastern Egg Rock sat low in the water just ahead of us.
“I brought a bag of these sandwiches out here last month,” Gramlich said, pointing to a large brown plastic bag at his feet. Inside were the six hundred or so lethal “sandwiches” which he had carefully prepared the day before, spreading seven milligrams of an avian poison called Starlicide, mixed with margarine, on each slice of bread. “I put two or three pieces on every nest, and I could see the gulls were taking them just fine. There were about a hundred gulls around, and I figured that would clean them out. Now look at them.”
“There must be three, maybe four hundred of them around the island now,” Steve Kress said.
Gramlich nodded expressionlessly. “It doesn’t take long for others to come in and fill the vacuum,” he said.
Man created an earlier vacuum on this remote island. Once a variety of sea birds nested among its tumbled rocks and low herbage. There were a few gulls, but not in such numbers as to disrupt the neighboring colonies of terns, puffins, black guillemots and several other species. But as the island’s name suggests, it became a favorite place for the people on the mainland to gather eggs. Millinery gunners came to the island to kill the gulls and terns for their plumage. Other men stretched herring nets across the rocky nesting burrows of the puffins and caught them for food. Apparently the last puffin nested on Eastern Egg Rock in 1907. The other birds disappeared at about the same time.
In the intervening years some of the birds have returned, notably the gulls, but also a few guillemots and eider ducks. The terns and puffins have not. Under ordinary circumstances the entrenched legions of predaceous gulls would decimate new tern or puffin colonies in no time at all.
Our skipper anchored off the island, which is, in fact, little more than a rock, a treeless outcrop of perhaps seven acres in the northern sea, its broad, disarrayed apron of granite boulders enclosing an uplifted meadow matted with grass and herbaceous plants. Its only structure is a small wooden Coast Guard reflector mounted on the outer side of the island. The skipper untied the skiff and ferried us and our varied cargo ashore, depositing us on clumps of slippery rockweed at the water’s edge. The gulls, several hundred of them, were already off their nests and wheeling, calling, above the island.
I followed Gramlich and his sack to higher ground. Yellow lichens gilded the rocks. There was the heavy odor of guano. Strewn across the upper shore was the customary flotsam—stranded crates, short lengths of rope, silvered driftwood, old timbers bearded with algae. The only unusual note in the scene was the abundance of mummied gulls, most of them “Black-backs,” lying about on the rocks and turf.
With the toe of his rubber boot Gramlich prodded a dead gull onto its back. “You see, I did get a lot of them last time,” he said. “The poison kills them in about two days. It destroys their kidneys, and they’re probably killed by their own toxins building up in their bodies.”
“Aren’t you worried about an eagle or a raven scavenging the carcass and picking up the poison?” I asked him.
Gramlich shook his head. “No, there’s no secondary poisoning with this substance. It breaks down along with the bird’s organs, and disappears. And the sea birds which might be around don’t eat bread, so it’s pretty selective. But at Petit Manan, one of the gull colonies we planned to bait this year, we had to call off the project. It’s the most northerly breeding colony of Laughing Gulls, and they showed up a couple of weeks earlier than usual. There are only a few pairs of Laughing Gulls in this area, and we didn’t want to take the chance of them picking up the bait.”
Just ahead of us there was a gull’s nest. It sat solidly in a sharp angle of fractured rock, woven of twigs, grasses, seaweed and miscellaneous debris. In it were two eggs, slightly larger than hen’s eggs, of a drab green heavily splotched with black and brown.
“Some people say you can tell the Herring Gull’s eggs from the Black-back’s by measuring them, but I find that it doesn’t always work,” Gramlich said. “There’s some overlapping. But the higher you get on the island, the more likely it is that you’re getting Black-backs, because they take over the superior nesting sights on higher ground.”
Gramlich tapped the eggs with the toe of his boot, and bright-orange yolk spilled over the nest. To his annoyance, he discovered that he had forgotten his work gloves. He thrust the thick fingers of his right hand into a small plastic sandwich bag, and using this as a makeshift glove, removed a few pieces of bread from the larger bag and spread them on the glistening nest.