New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

Let Us Consider the Lowly Seagull

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Let Us Consider the Lowly Seagull


A Herring Gull

The lowly seagull? Well, it has a mixed reputation. It’s a nice bird, but there are altogether too many of them. It’s omnivorous and is as happy in a garbage dump as it is on a picturesque wharf. It is sometimes an annoyance, but, despite all of this, it remains an iconic symbol of the Maritime Provinces.

It is no surprise that the New Brunswick seagull is just a little bit smarter than average and today’s blog will consider the unusual defensive nesting behaviour that some of them have adopted.

Normally, gulls will build rude nests of vegetable matter, and anything else that can be found lying about. These nests are on the ground, and are placed as best they can to avoid predators. Other gulls are more defensive and build their nests on rocks or cliffs – still clear of danger.

The first reference I can find to Passamaquoddy gulls having different nesting habits was by John James Audubon who visited Grand Manan in 1833. According to De Costa’s1 1871 account, Audubon said “I was greatly surprised to see the nests placed on branches, some near the top, others about the middle or on the lower parts of the trees, while at the same time there were many on the ground.”

It is curious that this Passamaquoddy adaptation appears to have been learned, for a local resident told Audubon that, “when I first came here many years ago, they all built their nests on the open ground; but as my sons and the fishermen collected most of their eggs for winter use, and sadly annoyed the poor things, the old ones gradually began to put up their nests on the trees in the thickest part of the woods.”

There was a local initiative on Grand Manan to protect the gulls against eggers, and to see if they would revert to their old habits. It was found, however, that “this was not likely to happen, because on some other islands, not far distant, to which the fishermen and eggers have free access, these gulls breed altogether on the trees, … so that their original habits have been entirely given up.” The protected gulls on Grand Manan similarly refused to change their habits.

The collecting of gull eggs for food has now passed into history, but it used to be more common. The Passamaquoddy and Mi’kmaq people certainly did it, and there are stories that young gulls could even be trained up and raised like chickens – for meat.

J.G. Lorimer2 confirmed this unusual nesting behaviour in another book in 1876 by saying that the “truth of the sea-gull thus building its nest on a tree is asserted as a fact by the residents of the islands.” Annoyed to distraction by the eggers, “the poor gulls, after long and serious consultation, concluded to do as never a web-footed bird ever did before; and so build their nests; and lay their eggs, and hatch their gull-chicks, high up on a tree among the limbs!” Again, in 1891, Nathaniel Goss wrote in “History of the Birds of Kansas” 3 that he had observed the same behaviour at Grand Manan.

I would prefer to believe that our New Brunswick seagulls are especially clever in having adopted this behaviour. However, a lot more observations have been made of these birds since those days and things have been learned that even Audubon did not know. It is now acknowledged that herring gulls in general will nest on open ground, or on cliffs or even, rarely, in trees.4

Thus ends my salute to the Passamaquoddy and New Brunswick herring gulls whereby my hopes that they are special have been dashed.


  1. Benjamin F., De Costa, Rambles in Mount Desert with sketches of travel on the New-England coast from Isle of Shoals to Grand Menan (sic), New York, 1871
  2. G. Lorimer, History of Islands and Islets in the Bay of Fundy, Charlotte County, Saint Stephen, N.B., 1876
  3. Nathaniel S. Goss, “History of the Birds of Kansas,” Topeka, Kansas, 1891
  4. A. Schreiber and Joanna Burger, editors, Biology of Marine Birds, CRC Press, 2001

Written by johnwood1946

October 26, 2016 at 8:34 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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