by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
Cormorant Phobia Hits Parks Canada
As our boat drifted about at the end of its anchor rope there were times when, had I a stone to throw, it would have landed in a foreign country, the United States of America. It was early May and we were in anchored in the southern end of Lake Erie, our stern facing a tiny, uninhabited bit of land called Middle Island, the southernmost land in Canada. The invisible international border was a hard line on the screen of our GPS, our small boat a blip pressed against the line.
It was a glorious morning, bitterly cold but energetically vibrant in the brightly brittle sunlight and the dynamic panorama of swirling birds caught up in the biological imperatives of nest building, egg laying, incubation and the nurturing of young. Herring gulls glowed sharply white as they swirled overhead or perched on the limestone shoreline while double-crested cormorants came and went, often flying low over the water in raggedly lines, or perching in large numbers on a shoal just offshore, their black plumage contrasting with the white of bleached zebra mussel shells. Great blue herons, their wings curved and floppy, flew over head, or perched high in branches next to the clusters of twigs that were their nests. Herons and cormorants both shared the habit of leaving one bird at the nest when the other went searching for food.
There was a pair of attentive Canada geese, the adults a few meters apart, their tawny-colored young strung out between them, all of them hugging the shoreline. Tiny Tree Swallows skirted the choppy tips of waves. Occasionally we saw a chunky night-heron fly by and if we peered closely, we could see a few egrets, glistening white, among the black cormorants.
It was a primal scene, the island trees bedecked with the nests of cormorants and herons, many of the trees starkly leafless, the smaller branches gone in the ageless process by which bird excrement, high in nitrogen essential to plant growth, is so concentrated that the vegetation dies, in a process that extends back through time thousands — make that millions — of years.
The scene was primal and wild. No one is now allowed on the island, which has seen its share of human activity (being a few meters from the invisible border it served as a base for rum-running during the U.S. prohibition era), since it had recently become incorporated into Point Pelee National Park, and was a sanctuary for the nesting birds — or was until, soon after our own arrival offshore, a small boat filled with armed men arrived. We were helpless to do anything but watch what happened next.
We couldn’t see the men as they moved along the length of the island, hidden by the greening spring vegetation, but we could hear the pops, clatter and bangs of their .222 rifles as they shot their way through the “sanctuary,” killing nesting birds. We saw the cormorants, confused, circling above the carnage, and the stressed herons flying in circles, not understanding what was happening. The geese and their babies were now well out in the lake, and even the gulls circled, confused. We were focusing our attention on one cluster of three great blue heron nests. Their eggs were due to hatch, perhaps already had done so, and when the adults hunched low it was difficult or impossible to see them.
The killing went on all day as the men, sharp-shooters in the service of Parks Canada, walked up and down the length of the small island, killing birds of their nests. Finally, as the sun was dropped toward the horizon, it ended for that day. It would continue, all because the cormorant’s excrement was killing trees that, reaching their northern limits in southern Canada, were deemed to be more valuable, on this out-of-bounds island and beyond view of the mainland, than the birds. Move the island a few feet to the south, and the same trees would be deemed common because they are common in the United States, it being farther south.
It’s a little more complicated than that — hatred of cormorants is a visceral, illogical, virulent malignancy that defies facts and logic. No matter that cormorants have co-existed with the plants and the other birds since before humans evolved, wildlife management agencies in both countries deem them to be “over” abundant. No matter that the historical record shows otherwise, that twice, now, their numbers have almost been eliminated in most of North America. The fear and hatred they evoke has nothing to do with facts or reason.
Fortunately, not everyone feels that way. Enlightenment, understanding and knowledge may come slowly, but they do, slowly, occur.
Right now this species is managed by 19th century standards, when subjective values that saw wild animals as “good” and “bad,” and our moral duty was to destroy the latter. But the science of ecology has since evolved, and the cormorants are increasingly understood to be part of the overall ecological whole.
Meanwhile, on both sides of that invisible line we call the border, our governments kill cormorants in the hundreds of thousands, on their nesting grounds, their roosts, their wintering grounds, where they feed, wherever they occur. There is a religious zeal about it, as though God had erred and the horned devil had loosed the cormorant among us, but in fact, if I believe in the devil he is manifest in bias, stupidity, hatred and ignorance that leads to gunfire against innocent creatures doing what they have evolved to do as part of a world tarnished and corrupted by our prejudice, and by the acrid smell of gunsmoke.