By now, most of my feces and regurgitate besmirched clothes are washed and drying on the line, and I have had a few moments to think about the events of the past week. I was out on Appledore Island banding gull chicks, and taking blood and oral and cloacal swabs. Oh! The glamour!
My knees ache from seven days of crouching or kneeling on granite slabs, and there’s a small bit of blood spatter that may not ever come off of my field pants. A small souvenir to remember the birds by.
The work is always hot, grueling and dirty, and when I explain what I am off to do, most people I meet (on the mainland) look at me with brows furrowed and ask, “Why?!” I suppose I understand, and people have been giving such responses to gullers for a long time. I direct your attention to the middle paragraph of this page from Nobel Laureate Niko Tinbergen’s The Herring Gull’s World:
None of that middle paragraph is wrong; it is chaotic, and it is feces stained, and the birds do attack with substantial force when their chicks are menaced. But what Tinbergen and all of us gullers know is how enthralling the colony is too.
This year, we put together a great team of gull catchers, banders, bleeders and swabbers. They came from Virginia, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Two of them were students at North Shore Community College where I teach biology and animal science. One of them, Nick Lovasco, wrote a truly lovely letter of thanks to the benefactors and mentors who afforded him the opportunity. You can read his letter here.
For Nick, and for just about everyone else who comes out to Appledore to work with the gulls, their perspective is permanently altered. Nearly all begin making plans to come out the following year before we’re even finished with this year’s work. I catch them gazing out at the ocean, or watching a gull chick peep incessantly at its sleeping parent. They want their pictures taken with the birds; they want leg bands to take home as souvenirs. One student, when allowed to take a blood sample herself, choked back amazed tears after succeeding.
More than the science we do, this is what keeps me going back again and again: watching students’ eyes open, literally and figuratively, to the natural machinery all around them, and, for my students at least, to the ecology of their own coastal backyard.
Tinbergen says most things best, about gulls anyway, whether it be about their diets: “Also, the food is never red…it is always half-digested, and whether it be fish, kittens, starfish, earthworms, clams or crabs (to mention some of the more common kinds of food), it is never red.” or their calls: “The voice of a Herring Gull is wonderfully melodious. Of course I am biased, but I think there is no finer call than the clear, sturdy, resounding cries of the Herring Gull, carried away by the wind along the wide beach or over the undulating dunes.” But the best summation of all, I think, is this:
“I don’t regret for a moment that I have spent so many hours of my life in the gullery.”