Birds – Common Gannet

The family Sulidae is clearly a very old one, for not less than four fossil species have been described from the Miocene age, three coming from France and one, a very well marked species, from North Carolina. At the present time eleven species are recognized, of which number some four or five are found along the North American coasts. One of the most abundant and best-known species, and the Gannet par excellence, is the Common Gannet (Sula bassana), a bird of the coasts of the North Atlantic, coming south in winter to the Gulf of Mexico, and on the European side to North Africa, Madeira, and the Canary Islands. One of the most celebrated of the nesting places is the Bass Rock at the entrance of the Firth of Forth, Scotland. Here Macgillivray, in 1831, estimated that 10,000 pairs were breeding, and this number is said by Hudson (1895) to be still maintained. Although the Bass Rock has been often described and must be familiar to many, I venture to quote, from Mr. Charles Dixon, a very graphic account of a visit to this spot : “Upon reaching the Bass a few Gannets may be seen sailing dreamily about, but you have no idea of the immense numbers until you have climbed the rugged hill. But when the summit of the cliff is reached the scene that bursts upon one’s gaze is one that well-nigh baffles all description. Thousands upon thousands of Gannets fill the air, just like heavy snowflakes, and on every side their loud, harsh cries of ‘carra-carra-carra,’ echo and reëcho among the rocks. The Gannets take very little notice of our approach, many birds allowing themselves to be actually pushed from their nests. Others utter harsh notes, and with flapping wings offer some show of resistance, only taking wing when absolutely compelled to do so, and disgorging one or two half-digested fish as they fall lightly over the cliffs into the air. On all sides facing the sea Gannets may be seen. Some are standing on the short grass on the edge of the cliffs, fast asleep, with their heads buried under their dorsal plumage; others are preening their feathers; whilst many are quarreling and fighting over standing-room on the rocks.”

Mr. Dixon describes another great breeding place on Borreag, an island about four miles from St. Kilda. “The flat, sloping top of one of these stupendous ocean rocks looks white as the driven snow, so thickly do the Gannets cluster there, and the sides are just as densely populated wherever the cliff is rugged and broken. So vast is this colony of birds that it may be seen distinctly forty miles away, looking like some huge vessel under full sail heading to windward.”

But vast as are these nesting places, they are really insignificant as compared with conditions which prevailed on the Bird Rocks in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, less than fifty years ago. The Great Bird is a mass of rock, only about 350 yards long and from 50 to 150 yards wide, which rises abruptly from the sea, with mostly precipitous walls from 80 to 140 feet in height. The Little Bird is three quarters of a mile away; it is lower and much smaller.

One of the first, or perhaps the first, accounts of the Bird Rocks is by Jacques Cartier, written in 1534. In this he says: “These islands were as full of birds as any meadow is of grass, of which they do make their nests, and in the greater of them there was a great and infinite number of those we called Margaulx (Gannets), that are white and bigger than any geese.” Audubon passed these rocks in 1833, while on his cruise to Labrador, and “thought them covered with snow to the depth of several feet.” On a closer approach he found that the “snow” was resolved into myriads of Gannets, showing that there had been little diminution in the numbers during the preceding three hundred years. In 1860 the Bird Rocks were visited by Dr. Henry Bryant, who appears to have been the first ornithologist to actually set foot there. He found the Gannets occupying the whole northern half of the summit as well as many ledges along the sides and in numbers that are almost incredible. He estimated the number on the summit at fifty thousand pairs, with about half as many more on the ledges. His description is graphic in the extreme.

A few years later (1869) the Canadian government erected a lighthouse on the Rock and this was the beginning of the end, for several means of reaching the summit were provided, and the locality was resorted to by fishermen, who killed the Gannets, and other species as well, by the thousands, using the bodies as fish-bait. The eggs were also gathered in quantities, and by the year 1872, when the Rock was visited by Mr. C. J. Maynard, a wellknown ornithologist, the number of Gannets occupying the summit had decreased to about five thousand birds, and in 1881, Mr. William Brewster could find no more than fifty pairs. Others have since visited the Rock, and for nearly twenty years no Gannets have been reported as nesting on the summit. Mr. F. M. Chapman paid this interesting locality a visit in the summer of 1898, when he secured many photographs of the bird inhabitants. He estimates the total number of Gannets at fifteen hundred, which are all that remain of the one hundred and fifty thousand noted by Bryant.

Another common and widely distributed species is the Booby Gannet, or Booby (S. Leucogastra), as it is commonly called, which is found in tropical and subtropical seas practically throughout the world, except the Pacific coast of America, where its place is taken by the closely allied Brewster’s Gannet (S. Brewsteri). On the Atlantic coast it is found as far north as Georgia, nesting on certain of the West Indian islands, where, according to Bryant, it deposits the eggs, always two in number, on the bare sand or rock. The habits of life are much like those of the former species, except it is frequently made the victim of the Frigate-birds.

Brewster’s Booby was found by Goss on the San Pedro Martir Isle in the Gulf of California, where, he says: “The birds were not wild; they seemed to prefer the shelves and niches on the sides of the rocks as nesting places. They lay two eggs, and in all cases collect a few sticks, seaweed, and often old wing- or tail-feathers; these are generally placed in a circle to fit the body, with a view, I think, to keep the eggs that lie upon the rock, from rolling out.”