My last two blogs dealt with the days spent in a boat anchored just offshore of Middle Island, in the southern end of Lake Erie, the very southernmost land still in Canada, mere yards from where the country ends and the United States begins. I was there with my colleague, Liz White, to monitor and record Parks Canada's deadly assault on nesting double-crested cormorants. Staff armed with small calibre rifles and accompanied by spotters would walk up and down the island's length, usually hidden from our view by thick vegetation, shooting the nesting cormorants, and in the process causing havoc among the great blue herons, black-crowned night-herons, Canada geese and herring and ring-billed gulls also trying to make nests, lay eggs and raise babies on the otherwise uninhabited island. Great egrets were there, too, but the shooting has driven them completely away, even though they are noted for "nest site tenacity", the quality of staying with their nest even under duress.
One Parks Canada staffer would stay aboard the boat that brought the crew over from the mainland, an hour and a half trip. The shooters were trying to kill the cormorants with head shots, aiming carefully at a small, moving target. Birds who had their beaks clipped by bullets or were otherwise wounded by in ways that allowed them to fly, would flee to die or recover as best they could. But if the bullet brought them down to the ground they would tend to make their way to shore, and often into the water. There they would be pursued by the powered boat, diving to get away until, too tired and waterlogged to again dive, they awaited the blast of a 12 gauge shotgun; "euthanasia". Even then some found the energy to dive at the gun's flash, and sometimes it took two or three shots to render the birds dead.
These are nesting birds, bound by an instinctive imperative to maintain a presence at the nest. Except under intense duress one or both parents are always at the nest while there are eggs or young chicks. Cormorants swim and eat fish, but their plumage is not like that of loons, grebes or ducks; it is not entirely waterproof. Therefore they are limited in how long they could stay in the water.
And that was the plight of the two birds we saw on shore that the shooters and spotters had somehow missed reporting. What to do? We had neither the practical means nor the legal right to rescue them. To leave them meant that they would die slowly. Cormorants need to be able to fly to survive and these birds clearly would never fly again. The first was sluggish, perhaps bleeding internally, the second was more alert, but with an obviously shattered wing.
And so we called them in, on the boat's radio. On each occasion the power boat came as close to shore as was safe. With the gunmen on the island, and the boat looming nearer, the birds did what instinct directed, and took to the water. There, in spite of their respective wounds, each was able to swim hundreds of yards, gently chased by the Park's Canada boat, the intent presumably being to tire them. Cormorants can, when shot at with a shotgun, dive at the sight of the flash and be mostly or totally under the water by the time the shotgun pellets arrive. But I suspect, as well, the Parks Canada staff wanted to get the bird away from us and our cameras. Before the booming shots were fired the boat would position itself between us and the wounded bird, and I can't help but think this was intentional.
The wounded birds never had a chance. Their reward for not hurting any of our kind while simply fulfilling natural functions that have evolved through three billion years of life on earth, was to be first wounded, and then relentlessly, inescapably hunted down by the vast power we humans command with our internal combustion engines and high-powered firearms, and killed.
My emotions were mixed. I didn't want to aid the culling or see these birds killed, but on the other hand it would be cruel to let them suffer; we had to report them. But perhaps the most profound emotion of all was a sense of deep shame for my kind, mixed with admiration for the cormorants and anger at Parks Canada. The cormorants do nothing but ask their small share of a world we continually crowd out, and we deny them even that.
Barry Kent MacKay
Born Free USA