Northern gannets share two maxims familiar to humans: “home sweet home” and “don’t tread on me.”
They pack together on a Bonaventure Island plateau like New York commuters jamming a subway, only they’re louder. They are devoted parents and could teach humans a thing or two about loyalty in marriage.
Year after year, gannet pairs come separately from distant, scattered Atlantic waters to reunite, mate again and raise new chicks on the precise nesting spots they called home before heading south for the winter.
The island just off Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula offers remarkable insights into the northern gannets because they are easily accessible in vast numbers, seem to ignore humans and unlike many seabird species put up with being studied and tagged.
Their struggles to feed and breed in a warming climate are being closely watched by scientists.
Some of the lessons learned here and from other colonies about the life of the gannets:
Mates For Life: The gannets appear to be better than humans at monogamy, despite spending half the year apart, or perhaps because of that.
Marine biologist David Pelletier, an expert on their nest behavior who teaches at Cegep de Rimouski, found that 69% remain “faithful;” meaning they breed with the same mate for life; 22% are “divorced,” meaning they find new mates; 9% are widowed.
By contrast, about one third of Americans who have ever been married have gone through divorce.
Yes, But: It’s all about home base, not romance, say the scientists — though does anyone really know what’s in a gannet’s heart?
“Gannets are above all faithful to their territory, which explains why they are still quite faithful to their partner,” Pelletier said.
That primal need to reunite on the same exact patch of ground comes with a striking hostility to intruders from the neighborhood. The birds do not want the next gannet over to get in their territory, even as they reside barely a wingspan apart. That’s when things get ugly. They nip, screech and may fight to exhaustion, sometimes death.