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The Double-crested Cormorant

The Double-crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah

Linda R. Wires
With original illustrations by Barry Kent MacKay
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    The Double-crested Cormorant
    Book Description:

    The double-crested cormorant, found only in North America, is an iridescent black waterbird superbly adapted to catch fish. It belongs to a family of birds vilified since biblical times and persecuted around the world. Thus it was perhaps to be expected that the first European settlers in North America quickly deemed the double-crested cormorant a competitor for fishing stock and undertook a relentless drive to destroy the birds. This enormously important book explores the roots of human-cormorant conflicts, dispels myths about the birds, and offers the first comprehensive assessment of the policies that have been developed to manage the double-crested cormorant in the twenty-first century.Conservation biologist Linda Wires provides a unique synthesis of the cultural, historical, scientific, and political elements of the cormorant's story. She discusses the amazing late-twentieth-century population recovery, aided by protection policies and environment conservation, but also the subsequent U.S. federal policies under which hundreds of thousands of the birds have been killed. In a critique of the science, management, and ethics underlying the double-crested cormorant's treatment today, Wires exposes "management" as a euphemism for persecution and shows that the current strategies of aggressive predator control are outdated and unsupported by science.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18826-4
    Subjects: Zoology, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  5. PART I What Are Cormorants?

    • 1 Aristotle’s Raven: An Introduction to Cormorants
      (pp. 3-20)

      TO UNDERSTAND HOW Americans came to find themselves at war with the double-crested cormorant in the twenty-first century, one must first recognize that cormorants are not ordinary birds. To appreciate just how extraordinary they are, consider their occurrence at Disko Bay on the west coast of Greenland in the High Arctic. The coastline is dotted with rocky islands, and glaciers and icebergs abound. In winter, the air temperature can reach minus 22°F or lower, while that of the water, 30°F. Seals, whales, walruses, polar bears, and arctic foxes, all layered with dense fat or fur, traverse the icy waters and...

    • 2 The Double-Crested Cormorant
      (pp. 21-40)

      FROM A DISTANCE, the double-crested cormorant,Phalacrocorax auritus, is an unimposing figure, standing two and a half feet tall, with a wing span of approximately four feet, and weighing on average just under four and a half pounds. Its body, neck, and tail are all relatively long; the length of neck, especially, gives it a snakelike quality. Conversely, its legs, atop broad and powerful webbed feet, appear disproportionately short. Like most cormorants, it has iridescent black plumage that shines with an oily green, blue, or bronze gloss, depending on the light. The dark feathers of the wings and back are...

  6. PART II The Populations and the Perceptions, Then and Now

    • 3 European Colonization and the Making of a Pariah
      (pp. 43-60)

      In 1604, Samuel de Champlain sailed along the southwest coast of Nova Scotia and visited several islands. One, west of Cape Sable, came to be called the Isle of Cormorants, “so named,” the French explorer wrote, “because of the infinite number of these birds of whose eggs we took a barrel full.” Of the nearby Seal Island group, Champlain wrote, “The abundance of birds of different kinds is so great that no one would believe it possible unless he had seen it—such as cormorants, ducks of three kinds, murres, wild geese, puffins, snipe, fish-hawks,” and many others. Though Champlain...

    • 4 From Audubon to Conservation: The First Wave of Recovery
      (pp. 61-78)

      ON APRIL 26, 1832, John James Audubon celebrated his forty-seventh birthday by painting the double-crested cormorant in the Florida Keys. Believing cormorants in the region to be distinct from those elsewhere in the country, Audubon identified the bird as the Florida cormorant. In his portrait, a single cormorant looms in the foreground, perched on a craggy bit of dead wood rising out of unsettled water. In the distant background, patches of mangrove forest surround the perimeter, suggesting that the cormorant is in a bay or an inlet that connects to the open sea. More cormorants loaf on tiny islands or...

    • 5 Reversal of Fortunes: Another Decline and the Second Recovery
      (pp. 79-100)

      WHILE GREAT STRIDES toward bird conservation were made during the first half of the twentieth century, attitudes toward cormorants continued to reflect those of times gone by. Steinbeck’s observations describe a midcentury mindset that prevailed not only at Cape San Lucas but almost anywhere cormorants could be found. From Baja to Quebec, the story was the same: as cormorant populations recovered or expanded, the old hatred reawakened or a new one was born. In his tongue-in-cheek comment, Steinbeck identifies an important and lasting role reversal that distinguishes human-cormorant relations. Cormorants, returning to areas where they had fished in the past,...

  7. PART III The Economic and Political Landscape of the Cormorant, 1965 to the Present

    • 6 Fish Ponds and Reservoirs: The Context for Conflict on the Wintering Grounds
      (pp. 103-110)

      IN THE DELTA region of Mississippi, many factors have converged to create a perfect storm that swirls around the production of the channel catfish,Ictalurus punctatus, and its consumption by the double-crested cormorant. Here, the war over catfish has steered the cormorant’s more recent story and given it a distinctly US orientation. It has also done more to establish the cormorant as a continental problem than any other issue during the past thirty years.

      Located in northwestern Mississippi, the Delta region, commonly referred to as the Mississippi Delta, is a 6,200-square-mile alluvial plain that encompasses the floodplain of the Mississippi...

    • 7 Animal Damage Control and the First Standing Depredation Order for Cormorants
      (pp. 111-125)

      IN THE UNITED STATES, protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) makes taking, killing, or even possessing migratory birds, along with their nests or eggs, illegal. Nonetheless, there are situations in which protected birds can be legally killed, or “taken.” TheCode of Federal Regulations, which describes the rules governing the MBTA, identifies circumstances in which protected migratory birds can be so managed. The circumstances include the control of “depredating” birds—those birds considered harmful to human interests because of their consumption or use of agricultural crops or aquacultural products.

      To manage nongame migratory birds involved in depredation issues,...

    • 8 Conflicts on the Breeding Grounds
      (pp. 126-140)

      ON THE CORMORANT’S northern breeding grounds, most problems differ fundamentally from those on the southern wintering grounds. Conflicts in the North typically revolve around the cormorant’s interactions with naturally occurring resources. Lakes, rivers, wetlands, estuaries, coastal bays, and other waters subject to an array of forces beyond human control are the usual places where conflicts occur. In those environments, the cormorant interacts with fish, plants, birds, and islands that belong to no one individual or industry, but to the realm of nature itself. In such a landscape, one might expect a greater tolerance for cormorants, since no personal ownership of...

    • 9 The Second Standing Depredation Order for Cormorants
      (pp. 141-158)

      AS THE MILLENNIUM drew to a close, a portrait of a troublesome, destructive bird emerged. Three events in particular—the attack at Little Galloo, the establishment of the Aquaculture Depredation Order, and the results of New York State’s diet studies—set into motion a force that was of such magnitude and direction that it acquired a life of its own. Like a disease to which few had any immunity, the belief that cormorants were a pestilence upon humans and nature alike spread rapidly across the bird’s range, infecting nearly all those whom it touched. Despite numerous studies from multiple areas...

    • 10 A Half Million and Counting: Implementation of Management Policies in the United States
      (pp. 159-173)

      FOR CORMORANTS, the newly devised standing depredation orders created an environment not seen since the nineteenth century. Though cloaked in legalese, rules, and regulations, they established such loose requirements for killing and destruction that once again this black interloper became the target of intense persecution. Across much of the eastern United States, feeding areas, roosting sites, and breeding colonies were transformed into killing fields. Nesting islands, where birds demonstrate the strongest attachment to place and concentrate in great numbers, provide especially poignant reflections of times gone by. For just as before, when islands were the frequent destination of market hunters,...

    • 11 Looking North to Canada: Limitations to Management beyond the 49th Parallel
      (pp. 174-192)

      AS THE TWENTIETH century came to a close, the cormorant problem gained momentum in Canada as well as the United States. Increasing numbers of birds and conflicts revolving around fish, trees, wading birds, and a host of other matters were reported from Alberta to Nova Scotia. Similarly, the opportunity to stir up controversy and showcase a public enemy was not missed by the media. Biased and negative press much like that in the United States was a common occurrence; more than half the studies included in the analysis of cormorant media coverage in the Great Lakes area were published in...

  8. PART IV The Science, Management, and Ethics of Today:: Review and Critique

    • 12 Untangling the Mysteries between Predator and Prey
      (pp. 195-220)

      AT THE HEART of the cormorant’s story is the extent to which its current treatment is (or is not) based on sound science, especially relative to its management for fisheries. Since the late 1990s, the vast majority of birds and eggs destroyed have been targeted specifically to protect fish for humans. But the extent to which cormorants harm human interests by consuming fish has not been easy to determine. While theory, observation, and experimentation have established the potential for predators to affect prey populations, there are many situations in which predators do not control the abundance of their prey, and...

    • 13 Adaptive Management: A Process Gone Awry
      (pp. 221-241)

      THE AMBIGUITY SURROUNDING cormorant impacts on fisheries and the management actions to reduce them is in no way exceptional. Rather, the management of ecological systems and natural resources is frequently beset by significant uncertainty about the system being managed and how it will be affected by management actions. An approach commonly taken in such situations, and one now widely invoked to justify a broad range of actions taken to resolve cormorant-fishery conflicts, is adaptive management. This approach focuses on actions that facilitate learning while doing. It involves a decision process that uses findings from studies and experiments to direct the...

    • 14 Back to the Wintering Grounds: Liberties with Science and Policy
      (pp. 242-256)

      TRAVELING SOUTH TO the wintering grounds, the cormorant encounters a substantial change in climate, geography, and menu—and a fate sealed by even more potent forces than those operating on the breeding grounds. In this landscape, it is not just recreation and lifestyle that are at stake, but big business, a context that has made the autumnal arrival of hundreds of thousands of cormorants a particularly unwelcome event. Indeed, personal investment, a sense of being robbed, and a struggling industry with very narrow profit margins take the cormorant issue to a whole new level. From Texas to Alabama, both depredation...

    • 15 Engineer or Destroyer: The Case of the Catastrophic Ecosystem Flip
      (pp. 257-274)

      A FEW MONTHS before culling was initiated on Lake Erie’s Middle Island by Parks Canada, two member organizations of Cormorant Defenders International requested that a federal court grant an injunction to stop the impending cull. They charged that the statutory requirement to file a management plan for the park had not been completed before the decision to manage cormorants was made. The lawyer for Parks Canada admitted that there was no management plan for Middle Island but argued that if the cormorant population was not drastically reduced, the impacts on vegetation could result in a “catastrophic ecosystem flip.” The judge...

    • 16 Opening Pandora’s Box: Some Ethical Implications of Cormorant Management
      (pp. 275-296)

      THE CORMORANT’S TALE has been and remains one of cultural bias, prejudice, and discrimination against creatures that transgress human boundaries. A cultural pariah, the bird is defined, devalued, and excluded by its otherness. The last five hundred years have seen the cormorant transformed first into an exile and later into an exotic without ever leaving its home range. Ironically, in this enlightened age of conservation and heightened environmental awareness, the cormorant’s most recent history represents some of the most heinous treatment the bird has received to date. In fact, one of the most remarkable aspects of the double-crested cormorant’s story...

    • Afterword: What Future for Cormorants?
      (pp. 297-300)

      WHILE I WAS finalizing this book, the Pacific Flyway Council prepared a plan to address localized conflicts with double-crested cormorants; it involved managing their numbers and distribution at the Pacific Flyway scale. Additionally, the US Army Corps of Engineers began developing an environmental impact statement to manage cormorants in the Columbia River estuary. Although current numbers on the Pacific Coast are probably still below historical levels, the preparation of these documents indicates that cormorants west of the continental divide have gained a similar nuisance status to those in the eastern portion of the range. In the Midwest, cormorant management remained...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 301-316)
  10. References
    (pp. 317-336)
  11. Index
    (pp. 337-349)