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The Nest Quest: Group Sets Sail for Lesbian Sea Gulls : Nature: Biologist takes gay group to Channel Islands, where he had observed same-sex pairs in the 1970s. Research has prompted controversy.

June 20, 1993|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the "you'll-never-believe-what-I-did-last-weekend" category, this trip rated pretty high.

Chugging out of Ventura Harbor was a boatload of people headed for East Anacapa Island. Their mission: to spend the afternoon with lesbian sea gulls.

It did not take long for the jokes to begin. Yet beyond the chuckles, there was an air of seriousness about this crew. A very professorial-looking professor was on board. The expedition was organized by the Institute of Gay and Lesbian Education in West Hollywood. Reprints of scientific papers were circulated.

It was, after all, the Channel Islands where George Hunt, a UC Irvine biology professor, had documented the first scientific evidence of homosexual pairings in wild birds. Up to 14% of the 1,200 gull pairs studied by Hunt and his research team in the mid-1970s were lesbian.

The findings caused a bit of a stir.

Hunt got a stack of mail several inches thick--some of which he still has not read. Gay men and women wrote him in thanks. Conservatives wrote him in fury. An Orange County business owner took out newspaper ads condemning the research, which was partly funded by the National Science Foundation. Congress guffawed, waving the gay gull study aloft as another example of federal folly. An unscientific citizens task force in New York--obviously eager to dismiss the gull colony as one more California quirk--proclaimed that 100% of the sea gulls in the five boroughs of New York City were heterosexual.

Now, on a bright Sunday in May, Hunt was back in the islands, telling his scientific detective story to a much friendlier audience, a few dozen lesbians and gays, the first gay group he had ever discussed his research with.

Certain twists in the tale became apparent as soon as the excursionists huffed and puffed their way to Anacapa's tabletop. Spread over the expanse of brilliantly blooming ice plants were hundreds of Western gulls.

First question: "How do you tell the difference between the males and the females?"

Hunt's reply: "You don't."

Turns out the males look like the females--white and slate gray with yellow bills. That would seem to make the next step--figuring out the same-sex couples, something of a challenge. Was there at least a gay "club"--as gull gatherings are called--on the island?

Look at the eggs, Hunt advised. Usually there are only two or three eggs in a nest. A larger number indicates more than one female is contributing to the clutch.

Of course, it took Hunt and his research team a while to arrive at that conclusion. Lesbian sea gulls were the last thing on his mind when he started his Channel Island research.

Working with his first wife, Molly, also a biologist, he was studying Santa Barbara Island's gull colonies to determine why some male-female pairs were more successful than others in rearing their young.

His field team came back with reports of "supernormal clutches"--nests with four to six eggs in them. "Something's strange out here," his fellow researchers told him.

Further study yielded further oddities. Whereas a new egg is typically laid every other day in a nest, they were appearing at a rate of one a day in the "supernormal clutches." And a lot of the eggs were not hatching.

Some gulls were trapped for closer examination. The birds' gender was determined. Lo and behold, many of the nesting pairs were female. Hunt and his wife wrote a paper about their discovery. It was rejected.

"Some of you may have some feeling about this," Hunt said. "When you try to do something that's different, it's rejected."

The biologists continued their research. They arrived at the same results. They wrote another paper. This one was published in June, 1977 in the journal Science.

There, for all the world to read, was the startling news.

The lesbian gulls defended their territory without the help of a male. They formed stable relationships that continued from year to year. They exhibited courtship behavior, sometimes attempting to mount their partners--although they got a little mixed up about how to do it. The females shared round-the-clock incubation duty, just as male-female pairs did. Usually it was to no avail because the eggs were not fertile.

"But they're damn happy," said class member Louise Mebane.

Actually, some eggs hatched as a result of hanky-panky on the side with male gulls. And when chicks were born to the lesbian moms, they did a good job of raising them. ("Just like real life," piped up one of Hunt's listeners).

Still, after Hunt's initial paper, there remained burning questions.

Was it genetic, hormonal? Was it the result of their upbringing? Was it just a phase? Was it, as the New Yorkers insisted, just a Southern California quirk?

The studies continued for several more years.

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