To Kill a Cormorant

Are double-crested cormorants overrunning their niche—or recovering from centuries of suppression?

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Negative and positive images of the bird in a novel and a children’s book
Negative and positive images of the bird in a novel and a children’s book

It is relevant that the National Audubon Society did not choose the double-crested cormorant for its logo: Anne Nalwalk is not alone in her preference for egrets. In my town you can buy a little wood sculpture of a gull, but not a tchotchke cormorant. Gulls have made a huge resurgence alongside cormorants, thanks to the everlasting food supply at landfills and littered beaches. They eat trash and plenty of people still love them.

Cormorants are black. The effect of color associations on an animal’s popularity among Americans is debatable, but in Louisiana I’ve heard cormorants called “n— birds.” Cormorants have no pretty song, no graceful step. There has been no movie or television show to anthropomorphize the bird, no cormorant Bambi or Flipper. There are a couple of positive small-press children’s books, but the only major story featuring the bird is an award-winning novel by Stephen Gregory, called The Cormorant, in which the titular bird is literally satanic. It ruins a man’s life, tearing off the face of his pet cat and causing the fiery death of his son. In fact, the bird has had a poor reputation in literature beginning with the Bible, where it is described as unclean and connected with death. In Paradise Lost, Milton portrays Satan himself breaking into Paradise and sitting on the Tree of Life “like a cormorant.”

The adjective “cormorous” used to mean greedy, insatiable, ravenous. (Notice the raven here.) In four plays, Shakespeare used the word “cormorant” as a synonym for “voracious.” Yet the charge that cormorants have an unusually large appetite is misplaced. Despite the notorious difficulty of determining exactly what seabirds eat, most studies show that on average, a double-crested cormorant eats at most one pound of fish per day. That’s much less in absolute terms than a pelican eats and a similar percentage of body weight. Pelicans, though, remain generally beloved despite growing populations. Cormorants may be easy scapegoats (another animal with an image problem) simply because their hunting is so visible to people. The birds often forage by docks and in bays, and they can eat memorably large fish for their size, slurping down eels and other species longer than two feet. Yes, cormorants eat fish, but their populations would crash naturally in a region that didn’t have enough fish to eat.

Cormorants’ effect on wild commercial stocks remains unclear. Admittedly, they could be eating fish that marketable species depend upon; and a very large population could conceivably put a dent in a commercial or sport fish stock. But most research shows that cormorants don’t focus on the wild species that people like to eat. Instead, they opportunistically feed on small schooling fish, “trash fish,” whatever is available. Cormorants’ effect on the aquaculture industry, however, is painfully obvious: a dense flock can destroy a harvest, and cormorants are estimated to cost the catfish industry in Mississippi alone between $10 million and $25 million dollars annually.

 

The cormorant situation on my local South Dumpling Island is minor compared with that of the Great Lakes, the Mississippi Delta, and the mouth of the Columbia River, but it is representative of the issue’s complexity. The popular view of how cormorants affect Long Island Sound’s commercial fish is well put by Brae Rafferty, a senior instructor at Project Oceanology and a veteran of nearly three decades on the sound. He says: “When you’re out on the water all the time and seeing the birds, you think, ’They’ve got to be feeding on something.’ The winter flounder aren’t coming back. I’ve seen cormorants eating flounder, so between them and the seals there’s got to be some impact.”

Anne Nalwalk isn’t as concerned about the fish; it’s the look of South Dumpling that bothers her. She’s also aware that her objection to the cormorants is, as she says, “in the eye of the beholder.” Her concern is not based on the local environment’s true carrying capacity, but rather on what scientists call “wildlife acceptance capacity.” Her opinion derives primarily from cultural factors: learned aesthetics, negative portrayals in the media, and a nostalgia for the way things used to look within her memory. And there’s the rub with cormorants. Sure, their numbers are way up compared with what they were during the mid-twentieth-century DDT spree. But if their estimated populations before Europeans arrived are the baseline, they’ve simply paused partway on the long road to recovery.

People, not seabirds, have done the real damage to the fisheries and ecosystems of the coasts and the Great Lakes, through overfishing, introduced species, and pollution. The money spent trying to manage cormorants—which taxpayers will need to cough up indefinitely, unless we wipe the birds out forever—could be much better spent to reduce coastal pollution; to secure conservation land and marine preserves; and to help aquaculture producers develop new bird-smart practices and fishermen develop sustainable fisheries. Let’s take the bird off the guano list. Maybe Disney could come out with a new film, something between The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling. I’ll be watching for it in a Google alert.

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