Monday, July 13, 2020

Bird Brains: Gulls on the Chemung River

by Erin Doane, Curator

In 2009, ring-billed gulls were the scourge of downtown Elmira. The nearly 800 nesting pairs that called the small island between the Main Street and Clemens Center Parkway bridges home did not stay on the river. They flew over shops and restaurants, landed on roofs and stoops, wandered parking lots, and left their calling cards everywhere they went. Business owners and residents demanded that the city do something about the gull invasion. The birds had been coming to Elmira for over 100 years with no trouble. Why was 2009 different? 

Ring-billed gull, from
The Chemung River has not always been the nesting grounds for hundreds of gulls. In 1893, they were such a rare sight in the area that when one was shot by a boy while he was out hunting, it was big enough news to make it into the Star-Gazette. In February 1904, the newspaper ran another story when a flock of gulls came to Elmira. They were still seen near the river in March and a local reporter was pleased that no one had shot any while they were visiting.

By the 1910s, gulls were a regular, seasonal sight in Elmira. They would come back to their old haunts in early winter. If they were late, locals would grow concerned, and would then heave a sigh of relief when their feathered friend finally arrived. Pedestrians on the bridges would stop to watch the birds “describing graceful circles in the air or floating, peacefully down the river with the current.” It appeared that most residents and business owners in downtown were quite fond of the gull’s annual visits.

An amusing article from the Star-Gazette about negotiating to keep the birds in Elmira, March 21, 1910
The gulls were typically just daytime visitors to Elmira. They spent the night in Watkins Glen and flew down to the Chemung River every day to find food. When the river froze over, locals became concerned that the gulls may starve, so they threw food scraps out onto the ice for the birds. During World War I, the gulls were treated particularly well because it was thought that they could be used to detect submarines during their season at sea. The birds followed the trails of refuse dumped by the submersibles. Elmirans were encouraged to continue feeding the gulls during their short stay on the Chemung River “for every little bit helps when the nation is trying hard to win the war.”

The gulls were considered harbingers of winter. It was thought that when the birds arrived, cold weather was right behind them. Their late arrival predicted a mild winter, and their absence for a season was a sign of an early spring. The number of birds that arrived was also seen as an indicator of how harsh the season would be. If large numbers of birds showed up, then it was going to be a particularly severe winter. In 1931, very few gulls visited Elmira and it was “almost unprecedentedly mild.”

After the 1930s, reports of the gulls’ seasonal visits to the Chemung River stopped appearing in the local newspaper. They were likely such a common sight by then that their arrival was no longer considered news. It wasn’t until the new millennium that the birds again became newsworthy. In the early 2000s, some dredging was done in the river. As a result, a small island, roughly 100 yards long made of dirt and stone, was left in the river between the Main Street and Clemens Center Parkway bridges. The gulls found it a perfect place to nest. Within a few years Gull Island, as it was dubbed, was home to one of the most accessible ring-billed gull breeding colonies in the Northeast. Birders flocked to the area to get an up-close look at the birds as they nested then raised their young in the middle of the city.

Portrait of a ring-billed gull, from
Many locals and visitors were still quite fond of the gulls as their short winter visits became long summer stays. Gull Island was mentioned when the American Institute of Architects was working to recognize “hidden gems” in the area in 2006. The island also showed up on lists of reasons why Elmira was a great place to live in 2005 and 2007. Unfortunately, that many birds in one place also created a huge nuisance. The scavengers were drawn into downtown by food sources. They had the potential to carry diseases and were not shy about leaving droppings whenever and wherever the urge came upon them. By 2009, the frustrations of downtown businesses and residents had come to a head and they demanded that the city do something about the gulls.

Many suggestions were presented for ways to get rid of, or at least lessen, the gull population on the river. Some suggested playing sounds of fireworks to scare them away. Others proposed moving the island on which they nested farther down the river to a more wooded area. Those who suggested killing the birds or destroying the eggs were quickly shot down, however. Ring-billed gulls are designated a protected species by the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. In September 2009, the city approved a $4,160, three-year contract with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Wildlife Services for the removal of gull nests and eggs from the island. Those efforts helped to some extent, but gulls tend to return to the same nesting site year after year.

In 2011, the Elmira City Council adopted an innovative new way to deal with the birds. Sammi, a 7-year-old female Border Collie, donated by Elmira Animal Control Director Craig Spencer, went to work harassing the gulls into leaving. The plan to use Sammi for bird control was such a novel idea that the story was picked up by newspapers throughout the country. Sammi’s exploits appeared in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Northwest Herald (Woodstock, Illinois), Sioux City Journal (Sioux City, Iowa), The Burlington Free Press (Burlington, Vermont), Wisconsin State Journal (Madison Wisconsin), Daily News (New York, New York), The Signal (Santa Clarita, California), and Kenosha News (Kenosha, Wisconsin).

Ring-billed gull in Elmira, April 2020
Today, ring-billed gulls can still be spotted on the Chemung River, but there are not nearly as many as there were 10 years ago.

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