An Ode to Gulls

Before I arrived on Great Duck Island, a few people asked me “why on earth would you want to study sea gulls? There are so many of them. They’re like rats.”

I usually answered with a version of “…it is important to study every aspect of an ecological community. Gulls influence many other species…” But such a vague, abstract answer always fell on deaf ears.

People’s distaste for gulls had me thinking: how can ordinary people begin care about gulls; how can people come to feel the same love for this bird that comes naturally to field researchers who witness the majesty, grace, and care these bird exhibit daily?

juvenile black-backed gull
A juvenile greater black-backed gull.

After much thought, the answer came to me in three parts.

1. Poems.

2. Pictures.

3. Realizing that gulls are more human than you might think.

An Ode to Gulls

Flying Rats

Why do psychologists study people?

There are so many.

They are like rats.


Why do we study gulls?

They are so varied.

They are like people.

Immature gull.

Eyes Bigger than Your Stomach

My grandmother has a saying,

“Your eyes were bigger than your stomach.”

It is reserved for the occasion

When you couldn’t finish all

Of a hefting meal where you took too much meatloaf.


I’ve seen herring gull chicks

With eyes bigger than themselves.

Trying to swallow whole fish:

Head, tail, bones, scales,

A hefting meal larger than the weeks-old ball of down.

herring gull chick
A young herring gull chick sitting on its haunches (probably after a large meal).

Some people live

In the same town their entire life.


Other people can’t stay in the same town

For more than a few years.


Some gulls live

In the same state, from winter to summer.

Frequenting local sand bars,

Exploring the inland scene,

And always flying back to the island to nest each summer.


Other gulls live

In many states, from winter to summer.

Frequent fliers visiting distant shores,

Exploring more tropical lands and seas,

And always flying back to the island to nest each summer.

Sparing herring gull.
A herring gull soars over the colony.

Like a human child,

Young gulls mature in stages.


Baby chicks stay near the nest,

Adolescent chicks wander,

Teenage chicks explore—

Until the island’s berms give way to a boundless world,

As their young wings form their first flights.


But like a human child,

Young gulls always know where to beg for food.

Adult and chick
A herring gull parent with its chick.
Carl the Gull

Villages band together,

For safety.


Gulls nest together,

For safety.

When a predator nears the colony,

You hear it before you see it.

But you don’t hear the eagle,

You hear the sound of hundreds of birds,

That always have each others’ backs.

Gulls chasing eagle.
Herring gulls chasing a bald eagle away from the colony.
Larus Lessons

People can learn from gulls.

Learn to see themselves in others,

Learn to appreciate beauty in the usual,

Learn to stand up for themselves and each other.

herring gull bellowing
This herring gull bellows a warning.
More than Gulls

I was lucky to study gulls on Great Duck Island, but that’s not all I did.

Learn more about the island’s history, see how the landscape changed over the summer, and find photos of songbirds, puffins, and wildflowers from the island off the coast.

After Yellowstone, In Search of Nature

Every student at College of the Atlantic earns a degree in human ecology. The following piece is my final human ecology essay, a place where each College of the Atlantic senior reflects on what they learned during their schooling and presents a snapshot of their view of “human ecology.”

As long as I can remember I have loved nature. My mother recalls three-year-old Austin rescuing earthworms from puddles after rainstorms and running around the house turning off lights to “save the penguins.” Before I entered elementary school, television shows featuring lion prides and herds of giraffe made me dream of becoming a world-traveling wildlife photographer. As a teenager, I led my parents on a grand summer vacation visiting national parks in Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, California, and Oregon. I’ll always remember how I felt exploring Yellowstone National Park for the first time—like every footstep deserved to be placed with a gentleness and respect for hallowed ground.

While visiting Yellowstone, I was entranced with the natural and human history of the region. Firsthand experience watching bison swim with their heads barely bobbing above rushing rivers, seeing coyote puppies play with their mother in a sheltered glade, and observing wolves’ tracking a scent and howling through the twilight inspired a sense of natural wonder. The park, steeped in the legacy of American conservation, served as an ideal place to spark my imagination.

At Yellowstone, I felt the environmental vigor of my childhood again. I felt sensations that spurred the first champions of the conservation movement. This is a movement that has made great strides since the creation of Yellowstone, but given the current climate—one where humankind’s impact on Earth’s environment is more pronounced than at any previous time—there has never been a more opportune time to take bearings and consider if conservation requires a new direction forward. I wonder if Americans struggle to separate modern conservation from the preservation values of the 19th and early 20th century, a period when many beloved parks were protected. In an era of climate change, we need a new wave of environmental thinking because our environmental dilemmas require national leadership and international cooperation—not national isolation and international division. To reach a new plateau in conservation, we need a national effort to assess how our current relationship with nature falls short and what new routes we need to take.

Continue reading “After Yellowstone, In Search of Nature”