Sublimity consists, in part, of direct confrontation with unknowable mysteries of life and death. There are places in downtown New Bedford where you can stand at a window or in the open and look down on surrounding rooftops. The flat roof surfaces are always littered with shell fragments left by gulls, mostly Herring Gulls, dropping shellfish in order to break them open so they can eat the soft bits inside. The peaked roofs often show a coating of whitewash, gull guano, spreading down the peaks from where the gulls like to perch, facing into the sun. Midafternoon I was standing in a place where I could see down on half a dozen different rooftops. The sun broke through the clouds, and there was blue sky above, although the fog and low clouds wouldn’t let me see the mouth of the harbor, or even the steeples of Fairhaven across the harbor. With my binoculars I looked down on one Herring Gull, who was sitting on a pile of brown dead leaves and stalks, a pile which also included bits of green including a couple of dandelion leaves and bits of white trash or litter. It all looked too carefully piled up to be anything but a nest.
The Herring Gull casually stood up in the sun, stretched its wings out a little, and wandered off a few steps to where it was hidden from my view. The pile of leaves and litter had been hollowed out in the middle, and down inside I could see two olive-green eggs spotted with brown.
Since we moved here last August, I have been pretty sure that there’s a Herring Gull nesting colony on the rooftops of downtown New Bedford. With all the Herring Gulls in the neighborhood all year long this should not be surprising. A hundred years ago it would have been surprising; in Birds of Massachusetts, Richard Veit and Wayne Petersen write:
Before 1900, Herring Gulls were not known to breed south of eastern Maine. In the summer of 1912, the first nesting in Massachusetts was recorded by Allan Keniston on the south side of Edgartown Great Pond, Martha’s Vineyard, and, between 1919 and 1920, 20 pairs were found breeding on an ephemeral sandbar called Skiffs Island off the southern end of Chappaquidick Island. At the time, the prospects seemed so remote that Herring Gulls could ever establish themselves in Massachusetts in the face of the expanding human population that Forbush was prompted to state, “It is improbable that the Herring Gull can maintain itself anywhere on the coast of southern New England.” Defying Forbush’s prediction, the Herring gull underwent one of the most remarkable population expansions of any New England bird. The growth of the population between 1930 and 1970 was almost exponential until about 1965, when it leveled off. The slackening in the rate of increase may have been due to the refinement of garbage disposal, sewage treatment, and fish-processing practices because space for nesting sites does not seem to be a limiting factor. [p. 219; references removed for readability]
The fish processing plant off Route 6 on Fish Island regularly attracts Herring Gulls and other gulls, when the plant pumps blood and byproducts into the harbor; I’m sure they also frequent the other fish processing plants nearby. Gulls also sometimes flock after incoming fishing vessels, and they obviously eat shellfish that they find. Food sources may well be the limiting factor for the Herring Gull population in our neighborhood, since there are plenty of suitable rooftops on which to nest. As I stood watching this afternoon, I found only one other definite nest, and one possible nest, although I saw plenty of gulls in adult plumage who did not appear to be nesting. I stood looking down at those olive-green eggs for five or so minutes, and never saw the adult return to the nest.