Thursday, March 22, 2012

Toronto Conservation Authority Shows Insight, Leadership, Intelligence

Cormorants in Toronto

Unaccustomed though I am to publicly praising any government agency’s wildlife management policies, most of which so often seem predicated on the theory that only the views of people who hate or fear wildlife count, there are exceptions. The Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) is one.

In the beginning — and I’m just old enough to actually remember that beginning — there was, where Toronto’s Don River meets the north shore of Lake Ontario, a wonderfully huge freshwater marsh. It was filled with wildlife, including the now apparently extinct dark-color morph of the least bittern, known as the “Cory’s least bittern.”

Sadly, that marsh was filled in. And they kept on filling, dumping landfill form excavations throughout Toronto, day after day after month after year after decade. The East Toronto Headland, which incorporates Tommy Thompson Park, and is popularly known as the Leslie Street Spit, extends many kilometers out into Lake Ontario.

And a rather wonderfully strange thing happened. A process ecologists call “natural succession” took over, and plants and animals begin to colonize and transform the barren earth and stone landscape into an area of grassy fields, small marshes and nascent woodlots. Huge colonies of birds moved in, including gulls, terns, herons and, inevitably, double-crested cormorants. Foxes, mink, coyotes, deer, various songbirds and waterfowl all live there. Each weekend and public holiday it is open to the public, no cars allowed, but hikers, bikers, birders, dog walkers and photographers all stroll along the road that runs out to the automatic lighthouse perched at the tip, well out in the gray waters of Lake Ontario.

Among birds, and not excluding crows, starlings and pigeons, none generates more fear and hatred than double-crested cormorants. The concerns center on the fact that the cormorants eat fish, and nest in large colonies whose excrement kills trees and other vegetation. Around molehills of truth, sport and commercial anglers build mountains of myth articulated with hyperbolic vigor based mostly on fallacy. Sadly, state, provincial and federal governments are all too willing to comply, especially in the United States, where massive lethal culling of nesting cormorants are commonplace. Here in Canada we’ve been able to stop most such culls, or prevent others, although culling on private land still occurs, and resentment against cormorants runs high.

But, at the risk of sounding terribly elitist, and not withstanding its current mayor, Toronto is home to numerous universities, colleges, libraries, museums, the Ontario Science Centre, naturalists’ groups and, well, a diverse and intelligent community. Although I live just outside the city, I was born there and am proud of the community. And while I regret the destruction of the Ashbridge’s Bay Marsh all those years ago, I am also proud of the approach the TRCA has taken on cormorants.

Yes, the TRCA, responding to a plethora of interest groups, including a yacht club that seems to be adverse to the wondrous diversity of life all around (in contrast to boaters I’ve known), do manage the Spit, to some degree controlling and directing its character in terms of vegetation and wildlife. But to its enduring credit, TRCA has not only resisted calls to kill off cormorants, it has gone one bold step further and recognized them for what they are: a native species very much a part of the environment, even though its influence on the environment is more obvious than other species. And instead of indulging in misinformation, the TRCA has sought to identify the cormorant as part of the environmental whole, a fascinating creature in its own right. In fact, it has even set up a webcam in the colony, soon to be activated for the season.

TRCA has set aside a sanctuary for the cormorants. It is trying, successfully, to encourage the cormorants to nest on the ground, where they don’t damage tree growth important to the nesting success of what is now the largest colony of black-crowned night-herons in the Great Lakes. Night-herons are notoriously fickle, and often leave favored nesting sites, but as long as they are on the spit, they need trees. They are also negatively affected by climbing raccoons, who steal eggs and babies, so one strategy being developed is to place sheets of metal around the trees to deter the raccoons from reaching the nests.

Common terns, a species in some decline, nest there, but since they can’t compete with gulls on the mainland, floating rafts covered in sand have been placed offshore. That worked until last year, when a mink swam out to the raft and wiped out the baby terns. Once more metal sheeting will be employed, this time as flashing around the raft, to prevent mink from climbing up out of the water.

It’s a dynamic, exciting place to visit and one that is doing truly progressive work in trying to help people and wildlife co-exist in the urban environment.

Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA
Zoocheck Canada

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