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A Quick History of Gulls on the Shoals

Attacking gull on Smuttynose by Rodman PhilbrickHISTORY MATTERS

It is not quite 5 a.m. The gull colony on the uninhabited tip of Smuttynose Island have begun to murmur as the surf beats rhythmically against the jagged white-streaked rocks. The place  stinks of guano. It is littered with dried bones and empty crab shells. There are no other humans here. Just me and a few hundred sleepy dinosaurs.

 

“I have never seen a more dismal place” Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote in 1852 after visiting the furthest point on Smuttynose.  

But Hawthorne did not see what happens as the sun rises here these days. At the first glint of a small orange circle, the gulls begin to chant. The chorus of voices grows louder and more excited as they convince the sun to rise. As it does, the entire gull population explodes into the air, and a new day begins.

A quick history

Gulls are certainly edible. But there were tastier less elusive birds, like the flightless great auk, during thousands of years when Native Americans hunted at the Shoals. Gulls were anathema, however, to the early European fishermen who dried their large cod catch on the rocks in the constant island breeze. So the seagulls had to go during the 1600s. Colonial settlers certainly shot and probably ate any seabirds that threatened to steal or foul the valuable dried cod.

The earliest fishermen came and went with the seasons, but they left an enemy behind.  The descendants of Norway rats that stowed away on European ships still inhabit the Shoals. Gulls nest on the ground. Rats love the speckled gray eggs, and the battle for survival continues.

Gull on Smuttynose by Nate Hamilton

Did the gull population bounce back as the Gulf of Maine cod industry waned? We have no scientific studies to tell us. Oscar Laighton recalls shooting them for sport in the mid-1800s. His sister Celia Thaxter saw far fewer gulls than we do today.  In her poem, ”The Burgomaster Gull,” she described the hunting of this huge predatory gull,. She imaged all the other birds of the Shoals rejoicing when the fearsome burgomaster gull was felled by a shotgun blast.

Gulls kept their distance from the tourist-inhabited islands. Gull eggs, after all, are easy to steal. Gull parents will attack, screeching and swooping, pooping and vomiting a fishy bile. But they can also be held at bay by any egg-bandit waving a long stick.

The Appledore Hotel burned in 1914 and Smuttynose was then largely uninhabited. Legend says the gulls began to move there after Duck Island, home largely to birds and seals, was used as a practice bombing target during World War II. With the opening of landfills on the mainland, local gulls became trash eaters, and their population boomed.

CONTINUE SEAGULL HISTORY 

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