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Why Are Seagulls Significant to Utah


Did you ever wonder why the California gull is the state bird of a landlocked, desert place like Utah? The answer lies in a cherished piece of Mormon folklore that grew up around an unusual natural event that happened during pioneer times. In 1847, Brigham Young led the Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) pioneers from Illinois across the plains, mountains, and desert to the Great Salt Lake valley in Utah. This was a major undertaking, comparable to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Before that, the Mormons had already suffered religious persecution by non-Mormons mostly over their practice of plural marriage, or polygamy, which the LDS Church would go on to prohibit officially with the 1890 Manifesto. The rising hostility had forced the Mormons to relocate from Independence, Missouri to Nauvoo, Illinois and finally resulted in the death of church founder Joseph Smith in a jail in Carthage, Illinois at the hands of an anti-Mormon mob.

So when Brigham Young brought the first group of Mormon pioneers to the Utah desert in 1847, they were glad to be in such an isolated place, which held so much potential for them to build their utopian Zion in peace. Furthermore, they had a mild winter that year, which looked like a sign of approval from God. But the following summer, their crops were swarmed by a species of katydid now known as the Mormon cricket. These bugs blackened the sky and blanketed the ground. Nowadays we know that swarming is a normal biological process for many bugs, but to the Mormon pioneers, it must have looked absolutely horrifying like a Biblical plague. Of course they prayed for deliverance. If the katydids ate every stalk to the ground, the Mormons would starve to death that following winter. Meanwhile, they also did whatever they could to sweep or thrash the bugs out of the crops. And they were helped by flocks of seagulls, an aquatic bird, which flew in across the desert to devour the katydids before they could annihilate the crops. The seagull has been an important part of Utah history ever since.

When I first heard this story as a kid, I was under the dramatic impression that the seagulls flew in all the way from the west coast in answer to the Mormonsí prayers, and that the birds saved the crops single-handedly from receiving any real damage. The reconstructed truth is a little more mundane. The gulls were native to the Great Salt Lake. Pioneer diaries indicate that the crops were heavily damaged by the katydids, though not to the point of everybody starving. Also, it seems that credit for the real salvation of the crops should be laid at the feet of the Mormons themselves who had some effective methods of bug eradication. But the seagulls helped and it must have been a huge morale-booster to see them fly in and snarf down those katydids. The story of the katydid-eating gulls remains a great anecdote from pioneer times. On Amazon.com, you can find more books about this time period, including The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail by famed western historian Wallace Stegner.

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Content copyright © 2014 by Karm Holladay. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Karm Holladay. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Karm Holladay for details.

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