Why Utah Loves Seagulls (but not crickets)

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Drivers out West may have experienced the terror of swarming Mormon Crickets, which can overwhelm roads all at once and make streets so slick that drivers lose their grip. The threat of the crickets -- who swarm because their natural cannibalistic tendency creates chaos during mass migrations -- is so great that drivers say they've even seen the roads turn red with blood from the crushed insects.

But those swarming crickets also explain why Utah loves its gulls, and how the Mormon Cricket got its name, despite not even being a cricket.

Mormon settlers in Utah thought they had seen the worst of it in 1848 when a late April frost threatened to wipe out their crops. But, in late May, a swarm of the crickets amassed on the fields, threatening to eat anything in their path. The crickets (which are actually in the katydid family) cannot fly and are known to devour any plants. The settlers were completely overwhelmed, especially because they discovered that crushing the bugs would only attract more. Some of the settlers even began comparing the attack to the biblical plague of the locusts, with journals recalling darkened skies and settlers resorting to eating wolves and other wild animals.

Then, according to the story, thousands of gulls descended on the fields and began eating the crickets. The legend says that the gulls even had to stop to vomit up the crickets before going back for more, eating until they had chased the bugs off. The late arrival of the birds ended up saving the crops and ensuring the settlers survival. The so-called "Miracle of the Gulls" became a legend in Salt Lake City, with the California Gull being named the Utah state bird and a monument to the birds being built outside of Salt Lake Assembly Hall.

However, there is some question as to how accurate the legend of the 1848 Cricket War actually is. In journals from the time, there are actually only scattered mentions of the gull's arrival, which historians say could indicate that those were isolated incidents. In fact, most historians believe that the settlers were much more pro-active and set up reinforcements to ward off the crickets themselves.

Plus, it's not uncommon at all for the gulls to eat the katydids, according to ornithologists. In fact, it's still going on today.

The insects also remain a threat, and not just to drivers. The crickets continue to eat at crops and other plants, even causing more than $25 million in a 2003 infestation. However, farmers have come up with a new method of fighting them off that doesn't involve seagulls. Some have been blasting rock music around their fields, which apparently has kept the crickets at bay.

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December 21, 2011 - 11:40am
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