by Leo Doucet
I was lucky enough to grow up near the sea. We lived ľ kilometre from
the mouth of the Restigouche River on the west end of Dalhousie on New
Brunswickís North Shore. Every warm summerís day saw a group of us on
the beaches or in the ankle deep waterís of low tide looking for
whatever marine life had been left stranded. Another pastime was
silently drifting in a skiff with our faces a few inches above the
water watching the ever present and changing marine fauna.
East winds always presented problems. Coming in off the Baie des Chaleur it made it too cold for swimming so like the kids of today we simply switched channels. One channel saw us patrolling the docks where we could see, up front, the loading of newsprint on ocean going freighters. Another was fishing from the nearby wharves. There were many other channels.
After an absence of 23 years I returned to my home town, this time accompanied by a wife and five children and was fortunate enough to rent a house less than 100 meters from the very beach I had enjoyed so much as a youngster. My three youngest did the same things I had done on the beach so many years before but they were also interested in a small island about a kilometre offshore. We had a large canoe and one quiet evening I was persuaded to take them to the Island.
The island was no longer as I had remembered it. It was now occupied by "Black Shags" (Cormorants) a large black duck specie also common along the Saint John River whose droppings wipe out trees and brush alike.
There were now only small patches of grass on the island but each contained a seagull nest, some with eggs and some with tiny young. There was only a small beach about two meters wide where we had landed, the rest of the tiny rock outcrop was mostly a sheer drop to the water. As soon as we approached the island the black ducks took off up river while the seagulls rose and squawked as they circled overhead. Three of the very tiny chicks promptly launched themselves over what must have been for them a huge rock cliff, and tumbled head over heels into the water.
We immediately left but saw that the 3 chicks were swimming for the far shore, an impossible journey for five centimetre long baby birds. Aside from the distance they would have been vulnerable to fish from below. We had no trouble picking up the chicks and inside the canoe they quickly made themselves at home in one of the childrenís hat. The kids insisted we take them home so they could be raised but knowing that seagulls have gargantuan appetites I was reluctant. In the end they won me over, not however without extracting promises that the two boys would do all of the fishing to keep the gulls happy and the daughter do the cutting up of the fish and the feeding, I would do the cleaning up. None of us at the time knew what we were getting into.
When we got home I took a trout out of the freezer thawed it out and cut it into small pieces. The babies ate until their bellies bulged. I then placed them on some grass that the children had picked and formed into a nest and placed a large laundry tub upside down over them on the porch. I fed them again around 6:00 a.m. the next morning and before going to work reminded the children that they were to be fed every two hours until I got home. When I returned the tub was right side up with the nest and nestlings apparently happy. A basin filled with water had been placed in the tub and some grass placed near the basin allowed the chicks to climb in and swim about.
Two weeks later the chicks were the size of robins and eating about ten times as much. The boys were getting tired of running down to the nearby wharf rain or shine in order to catch enough fresh fish to keep the gulls happy. By now the laundry tub, filled with water was on the ground and pieces of wood placed alongside allowed the gulls full access to their private pool. About this time two things happened. One of the herring gulls disappeared and we noticed that we had two species of gulls. Two were of the common grey and white type, herring gulls, and the other, somewhat of a mottled light brown colour was a skua gull. Also their droppings so fouled the water in the tub that it had to be changed two or three times each day, something we hadnít counted on. The area around the tub also got its share of white splotches which had to be hosed down. We were now in a bind but I insisted the kids honour their promises.
The skua gull had been named "Coco" and the other "Flash". An NB Power transmission line that passed adjacent to our house left a wide grass filled area so neighbours were not affected. In fact the gulls became the talk of the neighbourhood with many people stopping by to enquire about their health. There is no doubt the gulls had bonded to humans. When little children came near, the gulls ran towards them thinking they were going to be fed but this frightened some and caused them to kept their distance.
One day we ran out of fish but we had just cooked a pot of lobsters and I told one of the kids to give each gull a lobster body so that they could pick them apart to eat since they ate anything. We watched in amazement as each gull grabbed a body flipped it in the air so that they had it end on and opening their bills to the limit proceeded to swallow a lobster body almost as big as their own bodies. It took a few minutes. It would go down their throats about two centimetres then stop until the gulls shook their heads, then a few centimetres more. I didnít think they were going to make it. At times the necks would be distended on one side then a moment later on the other. Eventually they got them down not being apparently the worse for wear. A gull must have a powerful stomach because the lobster shell dissolved and the only difference noted was that for the next while their splotches went from white to pink.
The gulls, now almost full grown found the tub a bit cramped and started to squabble over who was going to get the exclusive use of the pool so another strategy was devised. Between the house and the beach ran a railway spur line. Next to the rail line was a steep embankment down to the beach. That evening I told the oldest to walk slowly away from the house, over the rails and down the embankment to the beach. I would bring up the rear with a child on each side. At first the gulls were reluctant to leave the yard. It seemed they had established a boundary they were now reluctant to cross, but everything went well and soon we were down at the waters edge. Without hesitation the gulls went in and swam straight away from the shore. Within a few minutes they we surrounded by other gulls who landed close by in the calm water. They will never come back I thought. About an hour later the sun went down and it started to get dark. The boys started calling Coco, Flash. Suddenly the two detached themselves from the group and made for shore with the others following a ways behind. As they got closer to us the main body took to the air circling and squawking.
Coco and Flash appeared not to hear but came straight out of the water and headed for the steep incline to the tracks. They had trouble climbing the steep hillside and would stop to look around. When I touched them on the tail feathers to urge them on they would make a strange guttural sound we had not heard before then turn and try to bite. They would not be hurried. We took them down to the beach each evening with the same results for the next two week. Now they appeared to be full grown.
I came home from work one day to have my wife tell me the gulls had been running around the yard flapping their wings. "It wonít be long now I said". Two or three day later the gulls were using the street in front of the house for a runway. Fortunately the traffic was always at a minimum on this street. The gulls would run full speed down the street into the wind and with a good deal of wing flapping manage to get a few feet into the air only to fall back to running and another try. About two days of this and they were landing on our house. One morning a lady called and said that if we were looking for our gulls they were on her roof.
We had noticed that often cars would stop to observe the progress the gulls were making, including an RCMP cruiser that came several times. We thought nothing of it until a neighbour told us that seagulls have special protection and they legally cannot be kept as pets. Since the gulls were never penned at any time and were free to go anywhere they wanted the RCMP decided not to do anything about it. Besides they could not locate any law or regulation on the matter. A day or two after this we took the gulls down to the water as usual and watched them swim out to a flock of gulls near the island. When it started to get dark we stated to call. This time however they did not return. We continued to call for a long time but they never came back. I think we were all happy it was over.