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.

The Summer Visitors of Great Duck Island

A Summer Sojourn

On Great Duck Island, the field researchers from College of the Atlantic are just temporary summer visitors. But they are not the only ones. Almost all of the birds who rely on the small protected island in the Gulf of Maine for breeding, nesting, and raising young are only summer visitors themselves.

June 2017. The end of my second year at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine. After I wrote my human ecology essay and finished spring term, I hopped on the M/V Osprey and rode out to Great Duck Island—a haven for nesting seabirds. The island is about 10 miles southeast of Mount Desert Island, Maine, where College of the Atlantic and Acadia National Park are located.

Herring gulls on Great Duck Island
Many herring gulls nest on the rocky berm of Great Duck Island. Their nests are marked with orange flags by College of the Atlantic researchers at the beginning of the season.

The professor of ecology at College of the Atlantic, John Anderson, manages the college’s Alice Eno Research Field Station on Great Duck Island. The 1890 Coast Guard light keeper’s residence houses the research station.

Lighthouse Staircase
The iron spiral staircase on the inside of the brick lighthouse on Great Duck Island.

The Coast Guard automated the lighthouse in 1986, making the lighthouse keeper’s job unnecessary. The government then sold light stations across the country like the one on Great Duck to other government agencies or colleges and universities. In 1997, College of the Atlantic acquired the light station and residence to establish the Alice Eno Research Station. Today, College of the Atlantic owns a few acres on Great Duck Island while the Nature Conservancy owns almost all of the remainder.

Herring gull and chick
A herring gull banded by College of the Atlantic and its chick.

Continue reading “The Summer Visitors of Great Duck Island”