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April 2017

Vol. 45, No. 2

The Famous Herring Gull of Brenton Reef

John J. Galluzzo

George H. Mackay (1843–1937), the author of that piece, holds a special place in the history of the study of our avian friends. The son of Robert C. Mackay, a merchant conducting business in India with his firm Mackay and Coolidge, George had his future career mapped out for him from a young age. As a child, George lived with his parents at 176 Beacon Street in Boston a bustling avenue known as the home of the rich and famous of the city; at 19, he went to sea as supercargo on his father’s behalf during the Civil War. His job was to ensure the safety of the cargo aboard and see to its sale when it reached Calcutta. It was, as the old saying went, an education in the “school of hard knocks”—the “knocks” coming as the ship rolled back and forth and occasionally banged against waves caused by rough seas. Mackay married Maria Mitchell Starbuck, of the great whaling family of Nantucket, on October 13, 1874. In 1880, he still listed his occupation as “East India merchant,” but eventually he would become a stockbroker. About that time, they moved to a new home, at 218 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, with a summer home at Main Street and Bloom Street on Nantucket. Together they had three children, one of whom, a Noble and Greenough and Harvard alumnus, returned from World War I sporting a wound he gained flying for the Royal Air Force.

In 1865, George Mackay took up the hobby of not only gunning—hunting for sport—but also journaling his experiences on his gunning trips. For about a forty-year period, gunning was both an avocation and a vocation in New England. On the coast of Massachusetts, gunners could make a living producing game birds for the many hotels that dotted the shore. Their prey ranged from pheasants to “coots”—the three species of scoter ducks that migrated in large numbers each fall. Gunners also produced feathers and even entire birds for display on hats in the women’s millinery market. Mackay’s father, incidentally, never used a steel pen, instead proudly boasting that he used a quill pen his entire life. It was the public display of this wanton shooting that led to the formation of the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 1896. Eventually, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 outlawed the shooting of most species of birds, but in the late 1800s gunning was a gentlemanly pursuit. Mackay’s shooting journal, reflecting fifty-seven years of activity, was privately published in Boston in 1929. In due time he became, particularly through his interests in saving the tern colonies of Nantucket, an important early bird conservationist.

In the days before the routine use of spotting scopes or even binoculars for birdwatching, gunners and egg collectors learned more about birds than most others interested in them. Gunners necessarily watched birds for long periods of time in order to shoot them, and they could hold the birds in their hands and examine them closely.

In addition to his private journals, Mackay took to writing about his experiences, especially around southern New England, for publication in The Auk, the journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union, in the 1890s. In his 1892 article, one of many he wrote for The Auk, Mackay describes many characteristics of the Herring Gull, including its propensity toward kleptoparasitism (stealing food from other birds), how it carried different species of clams into the sky and dropped them to break open on the rocks below, and the wariness of suspicious adult birds that would not fall for tricks gunners used to lure young gulls near enough to be shot. He then dedicates the last three pages of his article to the story of “Gull Dick” and the Brenton Reef Lightship.

That it is customary for some of our water birds to return to their old haunts in New England waters has long been my belief,” he writes. “It is therefore with pleasure that I narrate an instance of such return by an American Herring Gull, for the facts concerning which my readers are indebted to the politeness of Captain Edward Fogarty, master of the Brenton Reef Lightship, Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, who has at my request most kindly furnished me with a description of the Gull and the details of its sojourn in the vicinity of the Lightship for so long a period.

The Brenton Reef Lightship stationed at that time, LV 11, was built in Baltimore in 1853 and originally served as Nantucket’s first lightship, taking up its station on June 15, 1854. After breaking loose from its chains and drifting ashore at Long Island’s Montauk Point in February 1855, it was rebuilt in New York and dispatched to Narragansett Bay in 1856, where it would serve until 1897. In 1890, LV 11 ironically—at least in the context of this study—was damaged when it was struck by a British steamer named after a bird, the Curlew. The LV 11’s master, formerly known as its keeper, was Edward Fogarty, who sailed on the ship from 1888 to 1898. When the next lightship, LV 39, took over, Fogarty stayed with the station, remaining in charge until his retirement in 1912.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, on July 16, 1850, Fogarty went to sea as a cabin boy at 15, visiting ports from Great Britain to South America. In 1871, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served on ships traveling the world, rounding Cape Horn and visiting Alaska, Egypt, Italy, and more destinations until settling into the job on the lightship on July 23, 1888. As fellow transoceanic sailors, Mackay and Fogarty spoke the same language.


For many years in the later 19th century, sailors on the Brenton Reef Lightship off Rhode Island awaited the return of their Herring Gull friend, Gull Dick. Image courtesy of Thomas A. Tag and the United States Lighthouse Society.

Mackay asked Fogarty for details about a gull that had been reported to recurrently visit the area around Brenton Reef. This individual bird, it turned out, was well known to the crew. “This particular bird is described as appearing old, and not showing the same activity as other Gulls of the same kind which also frequent the neighborhood of the lightship,” writes Mackay. “After it has been absent from the first of April to the middle of October, at which times it usually departs and returns, there are many eyes on the lightship constantly on the lookout to welcome Dick back again.”

When Gull Dick arrived on October 5, 1891, the crew noted the event as the twentieth anniversary of his presence in the area. Although the crew had changed with time, old sailors retiring or otherwise leaving the lightship, watching out for and feeding Dick remained an annual tradition. As the years passed, the crew became increasingly concerned about his age and what they perceived as his feebleness. The crew claimed they recognized him by his cry and by “certain marks on its wings,” and the fact that he approached the vessel much more closely than any other gulls would, though he never landed on the lightship itself.

“It is fond of and eats boiled pork or fish with voracity, preferring the former, swallowing six or eight pieces the size of a hen’s egg when hungry,” Mackay reports. “If not hungry and other Gulls are about at the time of its being fed, it will not let them have any if it can prevent it, although not wishing to partake itself, making the greatest possible fuss all the while if one of the other Gulls attempts to secure an occasional piece.” In one instance Fogarty shared with Mackay, Dick grabbed another gull “becoming too bold” by the neck and tore out a bill full of feathers, leaving the other gull “only too glad to escape further punishment by an immediate retreat.”

“Every morning at sunrise, when the lights on the ship are lowered for the day,” states Mackay, “this Gull is perceived coming towards the ship, from the rocks (where it roosts) about two miles away, for its breakfast which it always received from the hands of the crew. Should the bird not be noticed flying around near by, one of the crew will call the bird by name, whistle, or wave his hand, and soon the bird appears.” Once the lights were hoisted for the night, Dick headed ashore, to roost on the rocks near Beavertail Lighthouse on Conanicut Island.

And so it went, each winter, for twenty years. On April 12, 1892, Captain Fogarty noted that he had last seen Dick six days prior. What became of him? Had he flown north once again for the breeding season, expected to return once again in the fall?

Mackay, though, speaking with the heart of a true sailor, says that perhaps that was okay. “Pause my reader and reflect on what this story conveys. Is it not a most interesting portrayal of successful bird life well rounded out? Storms, disease, fatalities, perils of migration, have all been braved and surmounted for twenty years at least, and perhaps for a longer period. Yet still constant, Gull Dick, now a veteran, may nevertheless be seen as of old in his accustomed haunt, - while on board the lightship there is not today a man who was there when this bird first appeared.”

As it happened, Gull Dick continued to return to the lightship for an additional four seasons, which Mackay noted in a series of short annual notes published in The Auk (Mackay 1893, 1894, 1895, 1896). In Mackay’s final note about Gull Dick (Mackay 1898), he wrote that the gull had been last observed at the lightship on April 7, 1896, marking its 24th consecutive season at the ship. However, and one can sense Mackay’s sadness, he also wrote,

The failure of this bird to put in an appearance as usual in October, 1896, and his continued absence ever since, leaves but little doubt that he is dead, as are all the captains of the Light-ship except the present incumbent, Captain Fogarty. Having recorded this bird’s movements while alive for several years past in ‘The Auk,’ I now feel called upon to record his probable demise.

References

  • Mackay, G. H. 1892. Habits of the American Herring Gull (Larus argentatus smithsonianus) in New England, Auk 9: 221–228.
  • Mackay, G. H. 1893. Larus argentatus smithsonianus, Auk 10: 76.
  • Mackay, G. H. 1894. Further notes on the “Gull Dick”, Auk 11: 73.
  • Mackay, G. H. 1895. “Gull Dick” again, Auk 12: 76.
  • Mackay, G. H. 1896. “Gull Dick”, Auk 13: 78.
  • Mackay, G. H. 1898. “Gull Dick”, Auk 15: 49–50.

John J. Galluzzo is the development writer for the South Shore YMCA. Formerly, he was the director of education and camping for the South Shore Natural Science Center and ran adult education and citizen science programs for Mass Audubon’s South Shore Sanctuaries. He also holds the Thomas and Phyllis Tag Fellowship for lighthouse history research through the United States Lighthouse Society.

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