When a pelagic trip is short of great new birds to watch there is almost always the chum scrum to entertain the despondent birder. The chum scrum is the gang of birds, usually made up of gulls plus whatever else is in the vicinity, that follows the boat snapping up the food being thrown off the back of the boat in order to lure wished-for birds in for a better look. Chum monkeys are those who are paid to keep the chum flying off the back of the boat.*
What, exactly, is chum? Chum can be a variety of substances, from fish oil to popcorn. Whatever brings in birds is what will be used for chum. Stale bread, vomit, suet, bait-fish, and slurry are some of the things I have seen used for chum and that list is by no means exhaustive. What matters is not so much what is thrown off the boat but what is attracted in to eat the chum being thrown.
In my limited experience on pelagic trips, which are almost entirely off the coast of New York State, I can say that Northern Gannets will willingly fly right into the midst of a chum scrum, sometimes even plunge-diving very close to the boat. Alcids will often wing through the chum scrum, as if they were just taking a look to see what is going on with all the gulls. Shearwaters and storm-petrels seem to do the same, though reports abound of both coming in and feeding on fish-oil. I can’t even imagine how awesome it would be to have albatrosses in a chum scrum, something I have never seen, though my limited time on boats off the coast of California did allow me to see Brown Pelicans mixing it up in the chum scrum. And should I ever be lucky enough to get out to sea with Duncan, well, I don’t know if my brain could handle it…
Want to know what a chum scrum looks like? Check out the clip below from the pelagic trip I recently took off the coast of Long Island, New York.
Enjoying a chum scrum isn’t for everyone but they can be a marvelous way to take one’s mind off of seasickness or just to alleviate the boredom of a long and good-bird-lacking pelagic. Even if nothing particularly rare comes in there are always the gulls…
*Some chum monkeys are paid by being allowed to come along on the pelagic trip for free. This makes me wish to see broke birders standing near docks with hand-written cardboard signs that say “Will chum for birds.” And, no, vomiting off the back of the boat, though it is often referred to as “chumming” by those who find themselves clever (and not-seasick), will not get you a free ride.
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has spent the last five years in Queens. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy, their son, Desmond Shearwater, and their two indoor cats, Hunter and B.B. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications.
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