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A City of Gulls
by Melody Dimick

Reprinted with permission from Lake Champlain Horizons

Trumpeting gulls announce , "This is my ground. Keep off!" The incredible cacophony results from male gulls establishing territory, the first step in the mating and subsequent rearing a family on the crowded Four Brothers island on Lake Champlain. normally, gulls have about ten square feet for a nest. On Four Brothers, pairs squeeze into two feet of space.

Strutting aggressively, wings pushed forward, neck stretched up, bill pointing down, the gull signals a readiness for battle. If the signal does not deter interlopers, he attacks, employing his bill and wings. as in a tug-of-war, a gull seizes his opponent's bill, and the weaker bird is dragged from the territory.

Uninhabited by humans and accessible only by boat, the gull city on Four Brothers is a scene of constant animosities characterized by much status seeking. Older gulls possess the highest standing; some live over 40 years.

A century ago teen-ager Alvah Jordan and Augustus Paine were the first to realize Four Brothers , about tow miles off Willsboro Point, was important to naturalists. The observed almost 30 species of birds on the islands. (The Paine and Jordan Collection of birds' eggs is now housed in the Paine Memorial Library in Willsboro).

In a published account of his 1887 visit, Jordan said, "The woods were alive with warblers and the air discordant with he screams of the herring gull." Boaters who sail past the Four Brothers today also comment on the noise, but gulls have not always been abundant on Lake Champlain's islands. A decade after Jordan's recorded visit, the gull population to 50 pairs.

Mike Peterson, manager of Four Brothers, explained that about 100 years ago, herring gulls (Larus argentatus), known to many as "sea gulls," were badly persecuted in this area. Farmers and small boys collected and sold gull eggs for a pickled-egg trade in Burlington. According to local hearsay, eggs were shipped to New York City, Troy, Albany, and other cities to be used as part of a free-lunch program in saloons during the 1880's.

After the herring gull fled persecution, nesting died down until 1949, when the ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis) appeared and nested on Four Brothers island "C". The number of nests grew in the 1950's and 1960's and stabilized in the 1970's and 1980's, water levels were high, and the beaches were inundated, forcing birds to nest in trees; the number of nests declined.'

Although the islands housed about 17,000 nests in 1983, the number has stabilized at 15,00 nests, according to Mike Peterson. This concentration of gulls has reduced the island to a few trees, shrubs, alien plants such as stinging nettles, and guano, sea bird droppings. These droppings emit an ammonia stench worse than the odor in a chicken coop, according to wildlife specialist Ed Gardephe of the DEC.

The large concentration of gulls has caused a few problems locally, according to Jim Forbes, who handles wildlife complaints for the Department of Agriculture. Complaints vary, Since gulls carry salmonella, picnickers do not want them near picnic tables. Others complain because the gulls carry chicken bones and ribs from landfills and drop them on the roofs of buildings. Gulls have eaten the rood of a polyurethane warehouse because polyurethane feels like cuttlebone. The most serious complaint, however, is that gulls may fly into a jet engine. One-half of the bird strikes to airplanes in the United States is caused by gulls.

Although twelve species of gulls have been spotted in the Lake Champlain region, only three are known to breed here. The Great Black-backed (Larus marinus) appeared and nested for the first time in 1975. There are about four or five pairs on the island group, about one pair per island. Another 10,000 pairs of gulls nest on Young Island, one of the Sister Islands just east of North Hero Island.

The uninhabited islands are perfect for the gulls' complex courtship behavior. To attract the pugnacious male, the female, the initiator of the pairing, provocatively hunches her body, withdraws her head between her shoulders, and circles the male tossing her head and emitting a soft begging sound. She persistently pursues him, pecking at his bill occasionally until he regurgitates a mouthful of food, which she swallows greedily. This feeding ritual may be compared to engagement; the food replaces the diamond.

 
 



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