The Gulls of Appledore
The Isles of Shoals archipelago, straddling the marine border of New Hampshire and Maine, is somewhere between 6 and 8 miles offshore. This curiously variable distance hinges on where you’re measuring from on the mainland. The close-in islands are easy to get to by boat, but, critically for the two species of gulls that breed there, they are almost impossible for mammalian predators to reach.
Gulls nest directly on the ground, like most seabirds. Islands make this a more reasonable strategy than it might seem. With no skunks, coyotes, or raccoons around, eggs and chicks are remarkably safe from attack. The main threat tends to be aerial; raptors make sorties and do eat gulls, but the gulls also fend them off a fair proportion of the time. These are ancient, predictable enmities, and it’s largely a fair fight. If a land mammal somehow gets on a seabird island, however, the carnage can be horrific.
Appledore’s gulls were subjected to this in 2004, when several raccoons turned up there. They ransacked the colony, eating or destroying nearly every egg and chick. Researchers on the island assumed that the adult gulls would return the following year and reestablish themselves, but the population never recovered to its previous level. It seems the massacre left many of them unwilling ever to come back and raise babies there.
The disruptive power of omnivorous mammals in a seabird colony is broad and deep. One of our volunteers reflected that the gulls must be under great stress all the time, since we humans are omnivorous mammals, invaders, walking within feet of the nesting gulls. Individual gulls vary in their tolerance for such disturbances; some are relatively calm and mainly yell their dissatisfaction. Others are quicker to alarm, and fly up from the nest and then drop down, attempting to hit the offending passerby on the head. They often succeed. Relations are typically tense between the human and avian residents of Appledore.
The gull study on Appledore is decades old. I first got involved in 2008, and once I began teaching a few years later, I began to bring out my college students as research assistants. I now co-lead the gull project along with my sister, Mary Elizabeth Everett. Through the generosity of private donors, we are able to fund summerlong internships as well as short-term field experiences for students from my home institution, Northern Essex Community College, other area colleges, and even from local high schools and middle schools. We are an eclectic bunch.
Our team’s work brings us into closer contact with the gulls than other humans on the island; we can’t simply pass by the birds. We trap them, take blood samples, and affix bands to their legs so they can be individually identified both on the island and wherever they disperse to once the breeding season on Appledore ends. The information we get from the public’s reports on these banded gulls illuminates the birds’ travels, but also their family units, social structures, mates and ex-mates. This is all, admittedly, a burden on the birds. The disturbances we bring into the colony every summer is profound. The students know we have to hassle and harass the birds in the name of science, but they also come to see the whole endeavor through the gulls’ eyes, and learn to see the gulls’ behaviors as reasonable and appropriate.
Students often start out skittish, flinching at every squawk, but they quickly adapt to the rhythms and signals. I have a picture of one of them, Dylan, standing in a calm and stable stance, holding a yardstick and facing a gull, its wings outstretched in a threat display, worrying the other end of the stick with his beak. Dylan’s task was to distract the gull while other members of our team fiddled with his nest. The gull’s distress in this interaction was clear. Dylan’s calm was too. This kind of settling in, of understanding, of appreciation for what these birds must tolerate from us, is a wonder to see. There is an otherness about the gulls, of course, an insurmountable communication gap, a language barrier between them and us. But there is also kinship. They are not of such a different kind from us that a person, measuring the distance between themselves and bird, finds it, mostly, bridgeable.