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Why People Kill Cormorants

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Why People Kill Cormorants

By Barry Kent MacKay
January 2013

Paintings are all by Barry Kent MacKay. Visit his site for more!

Phalacrocoraxaphobia: An Invented Word for a Very Real Outrage

A few years ago I invented the word, phalacrocoraxaphobia (not to be mistaken for a real word, phalacrophobia, an irrational fear of becoming bald), which I defined as the unreasonable fear and hatred so many people have of cormorants, specifically, here in north America, the Double-crested Cormorant.

The Double-crested Cormorant is a goose-sized waterbird found from Alaska to Newfoundland, and south as far as Mexico and parts of the West Indies. It is one of many species of structurally similar birds found world-wide, all members of the family of birds known as the Phalacrocoracidae. They are related to pelicans, anhingas and gannets. They are the most widely distributed of the six species of cormorant native to North America, and the only one found in most of the interior of the continent. There may have been a seventh North America species, the nearly (or perhaps quite) flightless Spectacled Cormorant of the extreme north Pacific, but it was exterminated around 1850 and we are not entirely certain if it ever lived in Alaska.

Anyway, there is an almost pathological hatred, a palpable fear, of the Double-crested Cormorant among many people, especially in eastern North America. I call that fear phalacrocoraxaphobia, because it has the symptoms of any phobia, defined as an irrational or exaggerated anxiety.

Barry Kent MacKay cormorant  Barry Kent MacKay cormorant artwork

I think the fear is most often encountered in eastern North America because soon after the Europeans began colonizing the North American continent, generally moving from east to west in the pursuit of wealth and land, they nearly or quite wiped out entire populations of many species of wildlife they encountered, including, among others and to varying degrees, the prairie and the Newfoundland races of the Gray Wolf, Puma, Bison, the eastern race of the Elk, the Heath Hen, the Sea Mink, the Carolina Parakeet, the Great Egret, the Eskimo Curlew, the Atlantic Grey Seal, the Labrador Duck, the Passenger Pigeon, the Atlantic Grey Whale, the Black-footed Ferret, the Whooping Crane, the California Condor and the Double-crested Cormorant.

Many of these forms were entirely exterminated; gone forever.

Others managed to hang on in small numbers without ever recovering to previous population sizes (and some of these, such as the Whooping Crane, California Condor and the Black-footed Ferret, are now subject of intensive recovery efforts).

And some, such as the Great Egret and the Atlantic Grey Seal, managed to make a spectacular recovery when provided with protection.   The Double-crested Cormorant fits the last category.

Phalacrocoraxaphobia (it’s not that hard to pronounce… “fala crow-core-axe-a-phobia”…easier than supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, which children of an earlier generation easily mastered) is rooted in an assembly of causes, but I think much of it is rooted in the mistaken belief that Double-crested Cormorants are an alien, invasive species whose population growth in eastern North America is “out of control” and damaging to the environment.

Barry MacKay double-crested Cormorant 

Cormorants as Survivors of Age of Destruction

Our cormorants were subjected to two waves of destruction, the first being the aforementioned arrival of large numbers of Europeans who instigated an immense slaughter of a massive range of wildlife species. Records indicate that not just cormorants, but virtually all bird species were subjected to uncontrolled slaughter, much of it commercially driven to service the enormous trade in feathers and feathered skins of that era – a trade now largely forgotten, but it took an enormous toll on many bird species from around the world.

But also there was “sport”, defined by hunters of that day as the killing of large numbers of animals for no real purpose but to kill them. We all have heard of sportsmen firing at mass numbers of bison out the windows of trains as they passed the herds on the prairies, but in fact all kinds of animals were shot at, just for the fun of it, whether they could be utilized or not. From Ohio, one of the Great Lakes states, we have records of “boatloads” of cormorants shot on their nesting grounds.

No sandpiper, gull, crow, oriole, nighthawk, woodpecker – no birds of any kind were safe from the slaughter until the wealthier hunters began to realize that they were losing the very animals they wanted to have to kill.

In those days there was little, if any, understanding of ecological principles. The wilderness was seen as an enemy to be exploited and defeated, tamed and bent to the needs of humans. Predatory animals were deemed to be competitors for “game” species, if not destroyers of livestock or risks to human safety. There was little concern for the loss of hawks, owls, wolves, foxes or other predators…their extermination was seen as a positive thing done for the greater good of humanity, an attitude that still prevails among too many people. Such attitudes linger, to be sure.

But there was a growing awareness that some animals did things that served immediate public interests; songbirds, for example, might eat noxious insects or the seeds of nuisance weeds. There developed the very non-scientific but quite popular idea of “good” animals and “bad” animals. Protection started to be provided for the good animals – those songbirds who ate “bad” insects, and those that were edible “game” species humans enjoyed killing and eating. Cormorants were definitely among the “bad” animals since they ate fish, including the good ones.

Still, as the killing subsided the Double-crested Cormorant, while now absent from most of the Great Lakes (there was a breeding record from southern Lake Erie in the late 19th century, and several experts or reports mentioned their presence as a breeding species in the Great Lakes, without, however, details or preserved specimens to allow us to know the exact times and locations) were starting to return in modest numbers.

Then, in the 1940s, the powerful insecticide DDT was invented and pressed into widespread use. There followed a deep decline in many fish-eating species of birds, including the Brown Pelican, the state bird of Louisiana, from where it nearly disappeared, and the Osprey, the Bald Eagle and the Double-crested Cormorant.

In 1962 Rachel Carson’s famous book Silent Spring was published, reporting on various studies that showed how DDT “bioaccumulated” up the food chain, rendering fish-eating bird species unable to reproduce. The book referenced peer-reviewed studies, but Carson herself was personally vilified by many vested interests, teaching me, then in my late teens, a valuable lesson: People sometimes don’t care what is “right” or “wrong”, but hold opinions, fiercely, and instead of addressing facts that compete with or invalidate those opinions, resort to emotive invective fueled by ideology. That made a huge and lasting impression on me. Anyway, saner policy-makers than Carson’s obsessive critics prevailed and the use of DDT was greatly curtailed, leading to a second wave of recovery among eastern North America’s population of Double-crested Cormorants, as well as Bald Eagles, Brown Pelicans, and Ospreys.

A History of Fact vs. Fear

Back in 1937 a book called Birds of Canada by P.A. Taverner was published on behalf of the National Museum of Canada. It stated, “The danger of jumping at conclusions based upon superficial observation of common report is well illustrated by the result of a study of the food of these birds [cormorants] in the neighbourhood of the Gaspe salmon rivers. [“The Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax Auritus, and its Relation to Salmon Industries on the Gulf St. Lawrence”; Geol. Surv., Canada, Mus. Bull. No. 13, Biological Series No. 5 (1915).]

Though commonly accused of damaging the salmon fisheries by devouring small fish and fry, careful examination of about thirty specimens showed that the birds were eating fish of no economic value and no salmonoid remains were found in them. Probably the eels, sculpins, and other fish taken by the cormorant make the species beneficial rather than harmful to the salmon, and may more than compensate for the few valuable fish that it occasionally takes. The evidence of Dr. Lewis strongly suggests that salmon and trout are not only distasteful to cormorants but may even be positively harmful to them. This provides a good example of the caution that is necessary in condemning any species of birds.  Much additional evidence to the same general effect is also given by Harrison F. Lewis in his monograph “The Natural History of the Double-crested Cormorant,” privately printed under the auspices of the Province of Quebec Society for the Protection of Birds, 1929.”

Such studies have continued to show that the Double-crested Cormorant does not directly or indirectly reduce stocks of “valuable” fish wanted by anglers and commercial fishers. In 2003, the Conservation Committee Panel of the American Ornithologists Union (AOU) responded to the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) management plans for the Double-crested Cormorant in the U.S., as well as actions selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each year tens of thousands of the birds are slaughtered in the U.S. with approval of government agencies, and yet so visceral is the fear and hatred for this bird that it was not enough. More killing was required.

The process was biased against cormorants from the beginning (phalacrocoraxaphobics never consider the positive impacts of cormorants on human interests, such as their roll in controlling fish disease or reducing predation of “desirable” species), the conclusion forgone, and so to no one’s surprise the government chose to allow depredation permits (allowing otherwise protected birds to be killed) on public and private lands; to expand “lethal take” allowed near aquaculture facilities (fish farms); to allow destruction of nests, eggs, babies and adults and allow for population levels that would effectively eliminate the species from regions where it is native.

The AOU found that the process had been flawed because the scientific evidence used to justify these options was weak; the analysis of the data was simplistic; the management plan was inadequate and was unlikely to be “effective”; what is considered “success” is based on public perception and not on scientific results and, there is no way to either monitor the effects all this killing will have on the population of Double-crested Cormorants and so no indication of when the killing would, or should cease, given that it is the mandate of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to protect, not destroy, species and subspecies.

But of course “science” and “objectivity” had nothing to do with it. It was always about assuaging phalacrocoraxaphobia, and stopping complaints to politicians. And it has led to extraordinary levels of animal abuse…some half a million legally killed cormorants in the U.S., a much smaller number in Canada where my colleagues and I have had considerable success in reducing or eliminating the carnage. Thurman W. Booth, the Wildlife Services Director of Arkansas, could brag that the cormorant nest on display in his office was the only cormorant nest in the entire state. It inconceivable to those who understand basic ecological principals that anyone could brag about exterminating a state’s entire breeding population of a native wildlife species, not to mention utterly pathetic.

The Crime of Fish-eating

Cormorants almost exclusively eat fish, something they have been doing for many tens of millions of years. And yet, there are 39 species of cormorant worldwide, they are found on every continent as well as on oceanic islands, and nowhere, ever, is there any record of a single species of fish having been exterminated because of the presence of cormorants. There are laws of thermodynamics and basic principles of biology that prevent such destruction in established predator-prey relationships, but phalacrocoraxaphobes tend to be visceral in their fears and hatred; facts don’t matter.

They don’t understand, or care, that in naturally evolved predator-prey relationships it is the size of the prey population that determines the size of the predator population. The fewer the fish, the more energy each cormorant must exert in making a capture, until a point of diminishing returns is reached – long before the fish are depleted. Fish can replace their numbers far faster than cormorants, so when the cormorants starve, or move on, the fish can recover quickly. This “balance” between predators and prey has worked for the three billion years life has existed on this planet.

Barry Kent MacKay Cormorant  Barry Kent MacKay cormorant

Of course where fish are concentrated cormorants can take out large numbers. These include small bays, water impoundments, and the bases of dams. In areas where cormorants nest there is often, but not always, a “doughnut” effect whereby fish population density decreases around the colony – the “hole in the doughnut” – through the summer as the birds feed their young. But of course the fish, producing hundreds, even thousands of babies for every baby a cormorant can produce, rapidly replace those numbers. Otherwise the cormorants must move on, or die, thus reducing predation and allowing recovery of fish, either from fish moving into the vacated habitat, or from fish breeding.

Down on the Farm

In the south-eastern United States the biggest concentration of fish desired by humans are, of course, at fish farms. Speaking very generally, years of growing corn, cotton and other cash crops, particularly in the southern and south-central U.S., led to soils depleted of nourishment.   Enter a new food fad: creole baked catfish.

By flooding these fields with water after building dykes around their borders, farmers could start raising catfish in concentrated numbers. Meanwhile, food faddists were beguiled by creole cooking and a huge market for the fish developed. Impoverished landowners soon saw vastly improved cash flow. Like all agriculture, there were risks involved, production being influenced by such factors as disease or weather change, and market being influenced by such factors as the fickle nature of market demand, especially for food fads, and competition from other producers.

And like farmers everywhere, fish farmers expected government help to smooth over the economic rough patches, a circumstance that clashed with massive recession and subsequent reduced tax income available. More and more of the nation’s wealth became concentrated in fewer and fewer private hands, although all of it would not compensate for a burgeoning federal debt. Still, in the first years of the current century, catfish farming was seductive, and if governments were limited in the amount of economic aide they could or would provide, it was still understood that farmers were a well-organized political force to be recognized. And if anyone suffers from phalacrocoraxaphobia, it is your average catfish farmer. Cormorants certainly vied with a plethora of other fish-eating wildlife species around any fish populations, but cormorants tend to occur, where they occur, in greater numbers than other fish-eating bird species.

Most of the continent’s population of Double-crested Cormorants breed in Canada, but migrate south. Traditionally birds who breed in the prairies eastward would end up in wetlands and coastal regions of the south-eastern states, as well as Mexico and the West Indies. Many of those early wetlands no longer exist. So much costal habitat that nurtured the shrimp and other small marine organisms at the base of the food chain has been “developed” for human use that it is reasonable to assume a far lower number of fish now occur in those waters, quite apart from the “take” by commercial fisheries. On the other hand, there are those fish farms! Fish farms are to cormorants what bird-feeders full of peanuts are to squirrels: a welcome source of food!

The myth is that the number of naturally occurring wild fish lost to the cormorants in the last century or two is less than the amount gained by virtue of fish farms.  This idea of increased winter food because of farming is a favourite argument of wildlife managers seeking rationales for killing common, native wildlife species, and they have a fancy name for it: “agricultural subsidy”. From their perspective it’s a handy concept since it is nearly impossible to disprove. Put another way, they say that through our farming practices, including fish-farming, the “carrying capacity” of the environment, especially in the winter months, has been significantly enhanced over what it was in primal times.   The argument, as applied to cormorants, is that in earlier eras the ability of inexperienced young birds to survive, having only access to what nature provided, was much lower than now!

Certainly flooded fields filled with catfish support more cormorants than the forests that would have grown there in primal times, or the fields full of cotton, corn and other such crops, later.

But there are a couple of problems with the theory. For one thing it lacks an iota of proof. There are no records, for example, of numbers of starving cormorants on their wintering grounds prior to the relatively recent establishment of catfish farms. I’m sure that some such mortality may well have occurred when some extreme temperature fluctuation, storms or perhaps a toxic “red tide” (relatively quick increases in algae in amounts that are toxic to fish and so named because they often stain the water red) or other such phenomenon occurred, but to suggest that there was less food for cormorants in primal times is absurd. Yes, they’d have access to food inland, but the Gulf of Mexico, the lower Mississippi and the tributaries feeding these vast water systems were, in their pristine condition, far more supportive of vastly greater numbers of fish than their toxic, silt-filled or greatly depleted present-day versions.

The kind of detailed records of birds that we now have, and sometimes take for granted, did not exist back then, so that we have little information about how many birds of various species occurred in earlier times. However, there are records that indicate far more cormorants in the 19th and early 20th century, than now, when the claim is so often made that cormorants are at a “record high” number. As late as 1926 a migratory flock of cormorants estimated to consist of 100,000 to one million birds was seen. There were so many birds, “…that at times it was impossible to see the sunset sky through the mass” according to one observer. We see nothing like those numbers today anywhere in North America.

Cormorants, along with anhingas, mergansers, grebes, loons, herons and egrets, kingfishers, ospreys, mink, otters and other fish-eating wildlife species belong in the same regions as we do, and we can’t continually push everything else aside if we are to be serious about reversing the greatest extinction spasm in some sixty million years, and the subsequent ability of the planet to sustain all human live and commerce. That, ultimately, is what is at stake, but that’s of no concern to the catfish farmers, with their interest in earning a living, and having removed whatever reduces their ability to do that.

Unfortunately for them, shooting cormorants won’t do the trick. The catfish farming industry faces a far greater threat to its profitability. The demand for American farmed catfish has collapsed. There was a boom in 2011, when the value of the product soared from a measly five cents to a dime per pound to $1.80 per pound, but then the bottom fell out of the market. Buyers began purchasing cheaper produce from Asia, underselling the Americans. At this writing, about 40 percent of the American market has disappeared. Catfish farmers are draining their ponds and planting them, where possible, with traditional crops. In western Alabama the heavy clay soils mitigate against planting traditional grain and vegetable crops, and overstocked catfish farmers face ruin.

Blame free trade, globalization, greed, substandard and therefore cheaper production standards in Asia, but don’t blame the cormorants. But the sad truth is that even if the market had remained strong, nothing less than virtual eradication of all Double-crested Cormorants in eastern North America and the prairies would have satisfied the catfish farmers, and that would require the co-operation of Canada, where we have succeeded in reducing what relatively little lethal culling occurs.   Simple greed and the vagaries of market competition mitigate against the obvious solution, of making smaller ponds and netting them off against avian predators.  Incidentally, there are no Double-crested Cormorants in Asia, and in large sections of inland Asia, no cormorants at all, and the Asians have had many centuries of practice in fish-farming.

Excoriating Excrement

In desperation, phalacrocoraxaphobes, when they finally realize that well-informed people know that in balance the cormorant is a natural predator and apart from a few isolated or contrived conditions, don’t threaten stocks of “desirable” fish populations, either through direct predation or by eating the “forage” fish the larger species desired by commercial fishers and anglers covet, they have one last rationale for their phobia. Cormorant excrement is toxic to vegetation!

It’s true. Cormorant excrement is high in nitrogen and other chemicals which, properly diluted, are nourishing to plants, even essential to plant growth, and help contribute to the production of soil rich enough in nutriments to support a larger plant community than would otherwise be possible. But as every gardener knows, too much fertilizer is a bad thing and can kill off the plants. The excrement also can coat the leaves of trees and bushes, interfering with photosynthesis, further compromising the ability of such vegetation to survive. And as if that weren’t enough, tree-nesting cormorants will tear off nearby branches, to use as nesting material. Herons do that too, but not with the efficiency displayed by cormorants.

Cormorants nest both on the ground and in trees, and in some locations they do both.  Often they co-habit mixed colonies with herons and egrets, pelicans, gulls, terns and perhaps other species. They will often vie with herons and other species to use nests, or will take the sticks used by herons for their own, and yet indications are that in balance they seem quite able to share nesting habitat.

But, the argument goes, because there are typically more cormorants than other species in such colonies, the cormorants wipe out the vegetation needed, especially by herons and egrets, for their nests. Once the trees are gone, the argument continues, the cormorants have the option of nesting on the ground, something herons and egrets (apart from types of herons called “bitterns”, but they don’t nest in such colonies) almost never do. If the cormorants aren’t “controlled”, the argument concludes, it will be to the detriment of the other species – species which in former times were themselves subjected to persecution (they also eat fish) but which are now deemed more “desirable”, in some way more worthy, than cormorants.

If each print character in this essay, every letter, every comma and period, where to represent the trees destroyed in North America by natural or human forces – wind storms, forest fires, the timber industry, urban sprawl, agriculture and so on – those destroyed by cormorants would be represented within the final period. And they will, in the fullness of time, grow back.

But that’s of no interest to phalacrocoraxaphobes. They see wooded islands and headlands they’ve known all their lives suddenly filled with nesting cormorants and then, within a few years, the trees dying off, leaving bleached standing snags that soon topple. Of course, in the fullness of time, more time than we humans have patience for, the landscape changes, and cormorants are, ironically, agents of change for what we tend to think of as “the better”. The nutriment that is in cormorant excreta originates in the cormorants’ diet – fish – who take their nourishment from a food chain that is ultimately circular. Fish tend to eat smaller fish who eat still smaller fish who eat invertebrates and other smaller organisms who eat vegetal material along with all manner of other naturally occurring nutriment sources including that which washes from the land, or is deposited in the form of excrement and dead bodies of things like, well, cormorants for one. But to the degree that cormorant excrement is deposited on land, it ultimately enriches the soil, making it more receptive to plants, including trees.

The situation is given an extra twist in extreme southern Ontario. That is the northern edge of the natural range of a variety of common southern tree species that characterize what ecologists call the “Carolinian” forest. But people have mistreated these Carolinian forests, cutting them down to make room for farms, towns and cities, and to profit from the sale of commercially valuable hardwoods. Thus several of these tree species are considered to be at some level of rarity in southern Ontario, thus in all of Canada, given that the only Carolinian forest in Canada is in southern Ontario.

As it happens, there is an archipelago of islands in the southern end of Lake Erie, some belonging to the U.S., some to Canada. Some are inhabited, some are currently not inhabited although some of those once were, and were subsequently altered. To varying degrees they host a mantle of vegetation that includes some of these Carolinian tree species whose ranges end in Ontario.

One such island is Middle Island. It is literally only meters away from the invisible line in the waters of Lake Erie that forms the international border with the U.S., and is therefore the most southern land belonging to Canada. On Middle Island are Carolinian tree and shrub species that were once common on the Canadian mainland, to the north, but have been greatly reduced in that region by agriculture, forestry and urban sprawl. That means that they are listed as being at various levels of threat, but only for Ontario. The same species that may be “threatened” under Ontario’s provincial legislation would be considered abundant were it growing just a few meters away, on the other side of that invisible line, thus in the United States.

That means the decision to list them, legally, as threatened, or species at any “official” level of conservation concern, is political, not biological. Nature does not care about political borders and imaginary lines on maps. Governments do, and both the federal and provincial governments have sought to kill off large numbers of cormorants from some of these islands under their respective jurisdictions. The thinking was both simple and simplistic, and I am going to explain it in detail as it tells us in part, how phalacrocoraxaphobia can generate rationales for killing cormorants that are absurd, but may “look good” to laymen and politicians responding to complaints that cormorants “are killing all the trees.”

There is one endangered tree species, really more of a shrub than a tree, on Middle Island, and one endangered animal. The endangered plant is the red mulberry.  It is widely enough distributed, but is in serious decline because humans brought white mulberries from Eurasia to North America. The white mulberry is a classic example of an invasive species in that it is a non-native species that has escaped “captivity” and established a breeding population that has expanded in North America.

The problem is that it interbreeds freely with the native red mulberry, producing viable hybrids (capable of breeding with either parent species, or with other hybrids, to produce offspring which can further interbreed with either parent species or hybrids). This process is called “genetic swamping” and in theory it will, in the fullness of time and if not stopped, eliminate the genetically pure forms of either species of mulberry across the continent. Eventually there will be no pure red mulberries left unless it is in some confined place like a greenhouse, out of reach of white mulberry pollen. Of course there will be pure white mulberries, back where they “belong”, in Europe and Asia.

Whether or not this is good, bad, or of no consequence, it has nothing whatsoever to do with cormorants. You could kill every cormorant in the world, and the loss of pure red mulberries from genetic swamping would still happen, unless white mulberries could be removed from North America, or red mulberries could somehow be protected from hybridization. It is much easier to kill cormorants, even if it can’t possibly protect red mulberries.

The American water-willow, wild hyacinth, Kentucky coffee-tree and common hoptree are all listed as “threatened” meaning each is a species “that is likely to become endangered is nothing is done to done to reverse the factors leading to its extinction.” All grow on Middle Island. Of course none of them faces real extinction; they are common just across that invisible line in the water. What could be done to keep them also in Ontario is simple. These trees can all be planted and protected on the mainland. That’s a contrived, or artificial way to assure their presence in the province, but so is killing cormorants. But killing cormorants is what is being done. None of these species is going to become extinct or even rare, but that hardly matters to true phalacrocoraxaphobes. Meanwhile the Ontario and federal governments do next to nothing to protect these plants on the mainland. 

Snakes On an Island

And then there’s the snake in the garden. At one time there would have been one snake, the ancestor who was common to both the widely distributed Northern Watersnake, and to the very little-known Lake Erie Watersnake. When populations of animals are physically divided into two isolated groups (so that they can’t freely interbreed) they tend to “diverge”. When the Lake Erie islands formed, it was, it seems, because of rising waters, following the gouging out of the lakebed during the last great ice age, some ten thousand plus years ago. Lower land got flooded and higher land became islands. Some of those ancestral snakes were somewhat stranded on the islands, separated by wide expanses of open water. It’s true that the “barrier”, the water, was not absolute.  Watersnakes are called that because they swim in water, but we are talking a very long way to swim; these islands are so far out they are nearly or entirely over the horizon as seen from the mainland, and so to all intents the island snakes were somewhat isolated from the mainland snakes, or at least isolated enough for early “divergence” to occur.

“Natural selection” is, put simply, a process by which evolution happens. Snakes on the islands who had dark, uniform colouring tended, on average, to survive more than those that bore the distinctive patterning of the ancestral form. On the mainland, that patterning was more advantageous, presumably because the snakes were more likely to “blend in” to their more diverse mainland habitat.

Divergence happened. By the time scientists came along there were two distinct forms, or “taxa” (singular: “taxon”), a uniformly colored type of watersnake found only on the Lake Erie islands, and the much more widely distributed mainland form, with its bolder patterns. Scientists assign names to different taxa so they can write and talk about them and know what is meant. And they have developed a group of criteria under which various taxa can be listed. All who are similar to each other and interbreed freely, producing viable offspring, are called a “species”. But because of divergence, a species that is found in different regions may show slightly or not so slightly different traits, region to region, interbreeding where they overlap, and when such distinct taxa are described they are called “subspecies”.  Sometimes great debates break out over which label, species or subspecies, should be applied.

It’s a convenience, a form of keeping track of things, and not always clear cut. The Lake Erie Watersnake is distinct from the Northern Watersnake, yes, but is it a different species, or “just” a different subspecies? Opinion differs. Some of the Lake Erie Watersnakes are fairly well patterned, like the mainland ones. A few mainland ones make the big swim to the islands, where they can interbreed.

The snakes don’t care what you call them.

But for classification purposes under legislation designed to prevent rare species from going extinct, subspecies and full species are treated equally, and the Lake Erie Watersnake is deemed an “endangered species” because of its extremely limited range, and because it once probably was indeed endangered, but by humans landing on the islands and killing the snakes. We call that particular phobia, the irrational fear of snakes, ophiophobia. As a trigger to kill it is every bit as potent as phalacrocoraxaphobia, and neither should have any place in the policies of a society that is motivated by facts and science.

The Lake Erie Watersnake is no longer biologically endangered, but it remains legally endangered. There are lots of them and their numbers are growing because they are being protected, especially on uninhabited islands, and because their numbers reflect the amount of food available, and that has increased, of late, with the arrival of an “invasive” fish species called the Round Goby. It, and another fish species that is non-native, the Alewife, are both consumed eagerly by Lake Erie Watersnakes. The Round Goby was first discovered in nearby Lake St. Clair, just upstream from Lake Erie, in 1990. Prior to that it was unknown in North America, being a native of the middle-east. Just twelve years later it was estimated that there were 9.9 billion of them in Lake Erie. That is a huge number.
And Lake Erie Watersnakes love them. It has been estimated that Round Gobies now constitute around ninety percent of the Lake Erie Watersnake’s diet. But with so many billions available, what it really means is that food is not a limiting factor on how many Lake Erie Watersnakes are. Space is, and their ability to find shelter on the islands.

This is where it gets interesting.

COSEWIC (Committee on Species of Endangered Wildlife in Canada) lists as the “known predators” of the Lake Erie Watersnake, such things as the Herring Gull, Great Blue Heron, American Robin, raccoon, fox, and another species of snake, one that is both legally and actually endangered in Canada, called the Blue Racer, not to be found on Middle Island. But when a dead Lake Erie Watersnake was found, what did COSEWIC have to say?  “Dead Lake Erie Watersnakes with wounds from bird attacks have been found on islands inhabited by Double-Crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) (D. Jacobs pers. comm. November 2004), but it is not known if cormorants killed the snakes. Neonates and juveniles are more likely to be preyed upon than are adult snakes…”

You see how phalacrocorphobia works. The poor cormorant can’t catch a break. It almost never eats snakes; other species regularly do, but it still is implied that the cormorant was the villain. This isn’t science, but it pretends to be.

But even phalacrocoraxaphobes may have some level of misgivings about the cogency of slaughtering nesting native birds to protect species not in need of protection, so the rationale for killing is more subtle. They are protecting ecosystems defined as “gems” because, the argument goes, they are unique assemblies of plants that exist only on these uninhabited islands. The plants, the argument tacitly goes, are there as a result of natural forces at play, and then along comes the bad old cormorants to ruin it all with their steady rain of plant-killing excrement as they break off twigs and branches. Some cormorants are just fine, of course, but so many? Do we really want to turn any of these islands into treeless wastelands full of the foul orders of dead fish, dead birds and excrement, all baked in the sun on a barren expanse where once green trees grew?

That the cormorants can eliminate so many trees is uncertain. My own visits to the islands suggests that the cormorants don’t kill all the vegetation, but rather, that they tend to nest at densities that kill off much of the tree life before moving to other parts of the islands, which will allow eventual recovery of trees in the area where they were first concentrated.

But whether they do or not is not the issue if maintaining as natural a condition as possible is the objective.

The cormorants belong. Chances are they were there before. In fact we know they nested nearby and it seems inconceivable that they would have ignored the islands, given that cormorants so habitually nest on islands! Their numbers may have been much less, due to a smaller food base than that now presented by the occurrence of two new fish species, the Alewives and the Round Gobies. Or it may be that prior to the commencement of commercial fishing there were many more suitable fish for them.   Certainly historical indications suggest that, and we know that several species have been greatly reduced or eliminated in the last few centuries.

Whatever the situation, it is contrived. The islands’ flora reflects prior human occupation, and prior occupation by various colonial and other bird species to varying degrees throughout history, the vast amount of which occurred before anyone was there to observe and record what was going on. From the time records were made there have been changes. For example, the Common Terns who used to nest on Middle Island, no longer do so, presumably as the vegetation has become too thick to accommodate them.  Change is the only constant in nature and the comings and goings of both humans and non-humans have had their influences on the Lake Erie islands, or indeed, anywhere cormorants nest. They are native; they belong.

To me, bird colonies are extremely fascinating places. They are also natural places, and where they belong, which is to say where they occur, are all the more natural because of their presence. Trying to preserve the place as it would be in their partial or complete absence isn’t natural. It produces a “gem” in the same sense a garden would…something contrived and manicured, the “weeds” – in this case cormorants – removed. It is clearly not the mandate of Parks Canada to do that, and yet that is precisely what it does when culling cormorants.

The Beholder's Eye

I understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and there are many natural events and aspects of nature that some people find distasteful, such as a group of scavengers competing for a decaying carcass, or orcas harassing a grey whale and her calf or a species of insect or reptile or a pile of elephant dung might be considered ugly or distasteful.

The fact that I find cormorants beautiful, and their nesting sites endlessly fascinating and dynamic affirmations of nature does, not mean the next person will. Such views are subjective. I feel sorry for those who hate and fear cormorants, who see them as ugly, for their world is diminished and they don’t even know it. That said, the issue to me is the place the birds occupy in nature.

Those who want a world changed certainly get their way over most of it; they can live their entire lives in great, carefully maintained cities without ever having to contend with mosquito bites or hay fever, without ever having to see a predator take its prey, or be exposed to thorns or briers or whatever it is about the un-human world, the primal world, that so disturbs them.

But there also has to be a place for nature, what’s left of it, to be natural, for predator and prey relationships to unfold. There is something sickly sad in not being able to accommodate the Double-crested Cormorant. The world population of the species is less than the number of people in a smaller city, but spread over an entire continent, and yet we say there are too many! We have, when we come to such a place, moved so far from the world of our own origins that I think we have placed ourselves in at risk of believing we are gods, omnipotent rulers independent of the great forces of creation.

But even so, the sufferers of phalacrocoraxaphobia should have no more sway over government policy than those who are free of the disease, especially when it comes to government-funded culling. This silly waste of money is tragic when measured against so much need for funding in service of society’s real problems. But instead wildlife managers, protecting their turf, demonize the cormorants, knowing society is so far removed from the natural world that relatively few will care.

That is why a group of us formed Cormorant Defenders International, which admittedly has not been very international, it having taken all our very finite resources just to challenge the bloody direction phalcrocoraxaphobia was leading provincial and federal wildlife agencies just here in Ontario, where we have, with considerable success, focused our attention.

I’ve tried to answer the simple question I was asked to answer, why do people kill cormorants? This issue is complex, the answer correspondingly multifaceted, but the bottom line is that a growing number don’t. We are making modest progress. Phalacrocoraxaphobia feeds on ignorance, and fear. It is a disease. It can be cured.