The Herring Gulls’ World, a small, turquoise volume in the Kent Island library, is popular reading among scientists and artists alike. It is a record of thorough, observational fieldwork that provides insights into an organism that is a defining element of the Kent Island experience. Herring Gulls are by far the most visible birds on Kent Island. The Jacks-of-all-trades of sea birds, they can walk, fly and swim equally well, and are scavengers as well as hunters. The large Herring Gull colony on Kent Island, which returns every summer to breed, is an obvious study subject. The Herring Gull’s World references early BSS scientist Alfred Gross’s work with the birds several times. Gross and his team banded an impressive 1,030 Herring Gulls on Kent Island from 1937-1939, and he terms the process “the sport of bird banding” in one of his Station Reports. Niko Tinbergen, the author of The Herring Gull’s World who later won the Nobel Prize in physiology, began studying the gulls in the Netherlands around the same time as Gross. He observed and experimented on them for twenty years, to discover what he terms the “mysteries of gull sociality.” He approaches understanding gull behavior by pursuing two questions: what are the causes of the behavior, and how does the behavior help the animal maintain itself or its offspring. His style, however, is more entertaining than this formulaic approach would suggest, and his commentary on the gulls’ behavior is often hilarious.
An illustrative example that proves that the book is very much a product of the 1960s:
“the initiative in-love-making is usually taken by the female, not the male, a very shocking fact to most of my friends when I mention it to them—as I like to do in order to watch their reaction.”
I was initially skeptical of Tinbergen’s more qualitative observations of the gulls when I came across the statement, “the voice of the Herring Gull is wonderfully melodious.” Anyone who has heard the screeching, squawking, and barking noises that the gulls make can attest that their calls are distinctive, but certainly nowhere near “melodious.” The sounds that Herring Gulls make are also extremely difficult to translate phonetically: “Kew” does not capture their piercing cry, and “hahaha,” Tinbergen’s word for their alarm call, is in reality somewhere between a chuckle and a honk. Tinbergen’s descriptions of the characteristics of different calls and their contexts were useful, however, because they helped me to put my piecemeal observation in context.
For example, when an intruder enters an incubating gull’s territory, the gull will either let out a low, barely audible alarm (hehehe) or a louder one (hahaha), depending on how close the threat is to the nest. The alarmed gull readies its wings for flight, and will abandon its nest and leave the camouflaged eggs unguarded if the threat is too powerful. At the sound of the alarm, chicks will instinctively crouch and run away to hiding places. The gulls will sometimes “charge,” circling overhead and diving right above the threat. While their charge is mostly a bluff, they will occasionally make contact with an extended foot, or will drop a warm, smelly bomb from above.
Though I am still agitated when the gulls attack, my understanding of the reasons for their behavior makes my anger less personal. Their territorial behavior, which translates into aggression towards trespassers, is warranted because a high rate of chick mortality that accompanies their drive for reproductive success. The chicks do have some natural defenses, such as their “disruption coloration,” grey with black speckles that is lighter underneath to counter the effects of shadow, that camouflages them. They are helpless and mostly immobile when they are first hatched, however, and when they hide in the underbrush, it puts them in danger of being stepped on. Several times a gull chick has run directly onto the path in front of me when it saw me approaching, squawking and stumbling like a drunk.
I have had ample opportunity to compare my own experience with the gulls to Tinbergen’s descriptions, because the birds have agency over the entire Southern end of the Island. When we first arrived, Damon and Janet warned us that the Herring Gulls would become increasingly aggressive as they filled they laid eggs and once the chicks had hatched, pointing out a set of construction helmets for protective purposes. While the Gulls were wary of our presence from the start, I was dismissive of their attacking abilities until sure enough, a few weeks later, the first eggs hatched. Suddenly the South End became a place mired with the dangers of gull droppings, screeching, dive-bombing, and sometimes a painful thwack on the head with a surprisingly solid wing or foot. I have nothing but sympathy for Ben and Drew, who frequently venture out into this war zone to do fieldwork. It is an increasingly rare experience to feel threatened by another animal. The combination of the gulls’ large numbers, their piercing cries, and their targeted attacks make entering gull territory alone an intimidating experience.
Besides their aggressiveness and noisiness, another cause of my general distaste for the Gulls is their predation upon their own kind. Herring Gulls will eat the eggs and chicks of other bird species, including those of Tree Swallows and Eiders that leave their nests unguarded. They will also prey upon the young of other Herring Gulls, and once they begin to recognize their own young after five days or so, will peck a strange chick to death if it enters their territory. Jackson has seen a Herring Gull chick attempting to swallow an adult gull’s leg, no doubt copying the cannibalistic behavior of its parents.
While the birds have many unpleasant qualities, the aesthetic beauty of a Herring Gull in flight is difficult to deny. Sometimes two birds will suddenly fly in tandem, swooping and banking together until they abruptly go their separate ways. The young chicks are also undeniably adorable, and I have, I admit, occasionally cuddled one. Learning about the gulls, both from my own experience and from other scientists, has extended my awareness beyond their surface behavior, lending support to Tinbergen’s style of observational research. He claims that scientists should start with observation and work their way down to specific questions from there to understand the behavior as a whole, an approach that all of the scientists I have followed here have taken, both to their and to my benefit. Tinbergen laments, “So few people ever pause to look at what happens, and to investigate why it happens,” a statement that is certainly true of most of the world, but not of Kent Islanders.
*Read more about gull chicks from biologist Janet Gannon’s blog here
Tinbergen, Niko. The New Naturalist, The Herring Gull’s World: A Study of the Social Behavior of Birds. New York: Anchor Books, 1960.
Gross, A.O. 1940. The migration of Kent Island Herring Gulls. Bird-Banding 11: 129-155. (BSS Contribution no. 7)