Friday, August 24, 2012

The Blame Game or What I Learned About Cormorants This Summer

When I told my parents I'd be working on a Zoocheck campaign to protect Double-crested Cormorants this summer, their immediate response was “oh those birds that eat all the fish!” I have to admit, this surprised me. Unlike my parents I felt very neutral towards this black bird I occasionally saw around the lake, but I was soon to learn that the Double-crested Cormorant is one of the most unjustly hated and vilified birds anywhere.

I’m lucky to have a family cottage up north, and over the past few years I’ve begun to notice the cormorants; usually sighting one or two, most often during boat rides. It’s hard not to be amazed by their distinct way of flying so incredibly low over the water, seemingly skimming the surface with their wing tips. More than once, I’ve found myself envying their ability to effortlessly manoeuver in the water; gracefully diving beneath the surface, incredibly at home in the aquatic world. Standing on webbed feet with wings outstretched, it’s hard to forget the odd sight of a cormorant drying its feathers in the sun and breeze. Up until now this was what I knew of Double-crested Cormorants. Unlike my parents I had avoided the rumour mill, never coming to perceive these native waterbirds as voracious fish-eating machines.

Both my parents are in their late 50’s now, and grew up in a time when there were a lot more game fish to be caught, and a lot less cormorants to be seen. Cormorant numbers plummeted after World War II with increased human persecution and chemical contamination from DDT. As cormorants on this part of the continent reached a point of near complete destruction, the pesticide DDT was banned, and in the 1980s their population numbers started to grow. This was somewhat bad timing, with their successful and somewhat dramatic increase in population, combined with the more conspicuous and landscape altering nature of their nesting habits, has unfortunately coincided with the ever noticeable decrease in desirable game fish –likely providing the opportunity for anglers and wildlife managers to target the cormorant as their scapegoat.

Despite science consistently being on the side of these birds (numerous studies have shown that cormorants may actually aid native fish species by primarily eating small invasive fish like alewives and the incredibly numerous round goby), pressure from hunting and fishing groups resulted in Parks Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources attempting to “control cormorant numbers” through what they call “management programs”.

Since 2000, these ill-defined programs have involved a range of attempts to kill and prevent the reproduction of cormorants through egg oiling, harassment, nest destruction, and most ruthless of all the shooting of parent birds while nesting in colonies on protected park lands. Of course the mass shooting of thousands of defenceless nesting birds sounds horrible, but it wasn’t until I actually witnessed the footage recorded by Cormorant Defenders International (CDI) of the culls carried out by park workers, that it really hit me how brutal and archaic this practice really is.

Cormorants are attentive and protective parents, who take turns incubating their eggs, hunting for fish and alternatively shading their fairly exposed young while in their treetop nests. Cormorants mate and nest in the breeding season at varying schedules which means there is a considerable span of time during which nestlings may be present. Apparently, adult cormorants aren't supposed to be slaughtered while chicks are present. But determining whether a cormorant has a chick or two in the nest is difficult or impossible. Many nests are located high in the trees, and with each pair of birds nesting at various stages, shooters engaged in culling really have no idea if there are young or not in the nests. Inevitably this results in young chicks being left to starve or fry to death in the hot sun where their parents are killed.

If that doesn’t pull at your heart-strings, there are a multitude of scientifically-backed arguments in favour of cormorants. I could explain how cormorants are not an invasive species whose population numbers are out of control, or that they do not, and could not be responsible alone for depleting game fish populations. I could argue that their nesting behaviours - though technically destructive - are a natural process that are far less of an endangerment to trees and vegetation than we humans are, or that the “management of populations” is an expensive and in-effective process of trying to control nature, that ultimately disturbs and threatens other endangered birds nesting in the same colony. Don’t get me wrong, these arguments are important; knowledge is the first step to clarifying myths and raising awareness, which the cormorant is in desperate need of. But to actually witness these beautiful creatures being mercilessly shot at during their most vulnerable time - while attempting to raise and care for their young, with many being left injured to die a slow death – it’s not even necessary to consider all the “facts.” Any compassionate, caring person should organically come to the realization that slaughtering nesting birds, of any species, is morally and ethically wrong, especially in a park or bird sanctuary.

In 2004, over 1,750 dead birds – mostly Double-crested Cormorants – were found dead in breeding colonies at the east and west ends of Lake Ontario in the late summer due to botulism. Type E botulism outbreaks are becoming more common, and are likely connected to increasing temperatures and the growing populations of invasive species introduced to the Great Lakes, such as zebra mussels and round gobies, one of the cormorant’s favourite prey species. As these exotic species essentially reshape the ecology of the Great Lakes, the native species of the area inevitably suffer, cormorants being one of those. Yet despite these troubling signs for the cormorant’s future, anglers and hunters and some government agencies seem hellbent on their eradication.

The myths about cormorants have gained traction and many people now believe they are fact. The reality is that humans almost eradicated the Double-crested Cormorant through direct persecution and the careless use of toxins. Amazingly the birds managed to pull through and re-establish themselves. Now we intentionally start killing them again. If we’re not careful, perhaps when I’m in my late 50s I may have to explain to my children how the now endangered or even extinct Double-crested Cormorant was once intentionally shot at and harassed because a few vocal people erroneously believed they were out-of control. Nature is not ours to control or manage, perhaps it’s time we recognize this. We should stop scapegoating the Double-crested Cormorant for the problems we’ve caused.

Michele Harrison
Zoocheck Inc.


  1. I have a 3 acre trout pond,cormorants are my nightmare,of course I don't kill them,but I'm constantly shooing them away.I'm always nervous leaving home to go shopping,leaving those poor little trout helpless.I can't help but hate them and know you would feel differently if you were in my shoes.

  2. I have a 3 acre trout pond,cormorants are my nightmare,of course I don't kill them,but I'm constantly shooing them away.I'm always nervous leaving home to go shopping,leaving those poor little trout helpless.I can't help but hate them and know you would feel differently if you were in my shoes.