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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 


 

Gulls by J Dennis Robinson

 

They’re back!

“If possession is nine-tenths of law, the gulls virtually own Smuttynose and Appledore,” journalist Jack Denton Scott wrote in 1977. His book for children, The Gulls of Smuttynose, can still be found online. Although just 64 pages, this large, hardcover book is a great introduction to the life and habits of the large aggressive great black-backs and the smaller gray herring gulls that now dominate the Shoals.

Perhaps better known for his cookbooks and novels, Jack Denton Scott was a prolific author of over 40 books. Ozzie Sweet, whose black and white photos illustrate the book, shot over 1,800 magazine covers in a long professional career. Sweet died at York Harbor a few years ago at age 94. Their gull book is an all-but-forgotten gem.

Today the nesting gulls are protected on both Maine islands and across the Isles of Shoals. They are being studied in detail these days at the Shoals Marine Lab on Appledore Island. The gulls walk boldly down the dirt paths that crisscross the island school run cooperatively by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire.

Shoals Marine Lab with Dr. Jennifer Seavey photo by J Dennis Robinson

 

Learning more

When I visited Celia Thaxter’s historic island garden two weeks ago, one aggressive black-back nipped at my heels. Another stood like a nightclub bouncer on a nearby picnic table.

Touring the island with Dr. Jennifer Seavey, the SML executive director, we were stopped by a gull family in the middle of the road. Two parents watched as their inquisitive chicks played with a slab of raw fish. For the first three months, baby gulls peck at a red dot on the parent’s beak when hungry. They are fed a meal of regurgitated crab, fish, rat, snake, or whatever trash can be scavenged.

The closing of local landfills, Dr. Seavey says, appears to be having an impact on gull populations. Herring gull numbers are down. The more aggressive black-backs are making it harder for the herring gulls to search for food.

Near the looming World War II submarine-spotting tower, I meet two fledgling ornithologists doing research on local gulls. Did I know gulls mate for life? I knew that. But did I know that gulls have facial recognition? I didn’t. Experiments show the birds can recognize and react to individual human beings.  I learned that gulls tend to lay three eggs --A, B, and C. Their chances of survival are directly related to who gets born and fed first.

I got a quick tutorial on the 10-week gull nest monitoring program conducted each year at the Shoals Marine Lab. SML also sponsors gull ecology research that includes bird banding. Dr. Seavey and the two interns are hoping to expand the marine lab’s “re-sighting” program. There is even a website where people who spot a banded gull, dead or alive, can report its whereabouts and activities. SML staff and students will then write back to the spotters. The volunteer reports provide important data  about gull migration, population change, and breeding habits.

Hatching gull chick by J Dennis Robinson

 

“Would you like to hold one,” an intern asks. The two researchers don bicycle helmets, grab long sticks, and disappear behind the old tower. Moments later they are back, followed by a screaming parent, who hovers above, then settles down warily.  She knows the drill.

The intern hands me the chick. He feels like a kitten, and after a peep of protest, settles into my hand, his little bird legs sticking out to the sides.

“He likes you,” someone says. But I know what he will become when he grows up--clever, graceful, and nasty.

Back on Smuttynose, a mother gull parades her three fluffy chicks--A,B, and C-- in front of the Revolutionary War-era Haley Cottage where I spend a week each year. I tossed her a hotdog once, and she has not forgotten my face. Seagulls are smart. They drop crabs and clams onto rocks to break them open. I once saw a large gull flip open a barbecue grill with its beak and grab half a chicken breast. They can drink salt water due to a special gland.  They are devoted co-parents.   

But elsewhere on the island, it is a killing field. Beside an old stone wall, a hefty black-back is feeding. He lifts his head as I approach. His beak is thick with gore. Rivers of red drip down his white feathered breast. He dips his head back down, plunging his face into the body of a recently killed chick, tearing at its entrails. He stares at me again, blood-drunk, then continues to gorge on his next-door-neighbor’s baby.

NOTE: For more on reporting banded gulls visit “The Gulls of Appledore”

 

Copyright © 2016 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the print version of the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday. He is the author of a dozen  history books on topics including  Strawbery Banke Museum, Privateer Lynx, and Wentworth by the Sea Hotel. His latest book Mystery at the Isles of Shoals, closes the case on the 1873 Smuttynose ax murders. 

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