Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2017

The Bird War at Great Duck Island Lighthouse

By Timothy Harrison


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Lighthouse keeper William F. Stanley is shown ...

By the time that William F. Stanley arrived at Maine’s Great Duck Island Lighthouse in 1890 to become the first head lighthouse keeper at the brand new light station, he was a veteran to lighthouse keeping and had previously served at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse and Matinicus Rock Lighthouse.

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Lighthouse keeper William F. Stanley with his ...

Thankfully for him, although it was another off-shore light station, Great Duck Island was a much more hospitable light station from where he had previously been stationed, a place where he and his wife could start a family.

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Vintage image of Great Duck Island Lighthouse ...

At that time, sea birds along the coast of Maine were being hunted to the point of extinction for their plumes to supply the New York millinery market. And, to complicate matters, the eggs of the Herring Gulls were being extensively gathered to be sold commercially for food.

The federal government had identified a number of coastal islands where nesting birds were in danger, and one of those islands was Great Duck Island. One of the first orders the Light House Board issued to keeper Stanley was to post “No Trespassing” signs on the island and, using all means possible,“prevent the destruction of the colony of Herring Gulls that live on the lighthouse reservation.”

Well, none of this sat well with the local Native Americans who had been gathering eggs and hunting on the island for generations. When a large group of Native Americans ignored the No Trespassing signs, keeper Stanley confronted them and explained to them what the sign meant and told them that they must leave the island. Naturally the indigenous hunters refused.

Keeper Stanley later wrote that he had wished he had a camera so that he could take photos of the hunters, but that he would rather have shot the Indians than shoot photos of them.

The Native Americans eventually and quite reluctantly were eventually persuaded to leave the island and they never returned. Thus, without a shot being fired, the Bird War of Great Duck Island ended peacefully.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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