War declared on Bad boys of Bird Alley

Around the Nation

by Tom Van Dusen

I’m about to make an open confession, here and now, to say something so politically incorrect … I can feel the hostility already!

I like cormorants! Strolling along the St. Lawrence River at Prescott, I like the way the scruffy black birds which remind me of cartoonish chimney sweeps decorate the support posts of the long-gone ferry dock below Fort Wellington. When they stretch their wings while perched on the posts, it looks a bit like the Batman emblem.

Yes, I like the Bad Boys of Bird Alley! There… I said it again! I think they add to the riverscape, contrasting sharply with the white, svelte, graceful gulls which never seem to get into trouble no matter how much fish they eat or poop they drop from on high. Make whatever inference you want about black vs white but I’m just talking about birds here!

When gliding on the water, cormorants can be mistaken for loons but not as pretty upon closer examination. Some loons may be mistakenly hit in the crossfire of the cormorant kill-a-thon introduced by the Ontario government Sept. 15 which — get this — allows anyone with a hunting license to randomly bag up to 15 inedible cormorants a day.

Theoretically, I could be taking photos of cormorants along the river as I often do and the guy next to me could suddenly open fire and knock a bunch of them off their perches. The shooter is responsible for correctly identifying targets as double-crested cormorants, of retrieving and properly disposing of the “harvested” birds. Fat chance that’ll happen in all cases!

Other than being black and a little creepy, what did cormorants do to deserve this ire? According to some hunters, anglers and elite cottagers, they eat way too much game fish and their droppings can kill vegetation and destroy traditional nesting habitats of other water birds.

How this information was tabulated other than anecdotally and whether a similar informal survey was conducted for gulls wasn’t described in an announcement from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry describing the war on cormorants in order to “strike a healthy balance in local ecosystems.”

The announcement did estimate there are 143,000 breeding cormorants in 344 colonies across the province and that populations are increasing on some of the Great Lakes while remaining stable along the St. Lawrence, a situation I don’t find overly unnerving.

Conservation organization Ontario Nature (ON) has blasted the open cormorant hunt as “wanton disregard for wildlife” and suggested motives behind the “slaughter” are based more on fiction than fact. For starters, the action isn’t science based, there’s no specific population management target, and hunters aren’t required to report their kills.

Studies, ON points out, have repeatedly shown that cormorants — a native species — feed primarily on small, largely non-commercial shallow water fish, often the invasive round goby. While the birds’ ammonia-rich droppings can kill vegetation, property owners already have recourse under the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act to harass, capture or kill problem cormorants.

Cormorants enjoy the Prescott waterfront. Tom Van Dusen photo, Nation Valley News

The organization concludes its defense of cormorants by underlining that the species has rebounded from steep declines in the 1970s because of exposure to contaminants. Their recovery is a Great Lakes conservation success story.

“Claims that cormorants are overabundant is a perception based more on socio-political than on ecological factors.” Simply put… politics is playing a role in the anti-cormorant crusade!

I’m with Ontario Nature on this one. Where do humans get off deciding which other species can live and which must die? The cormorants are following the natural course of life and have as much right to fish as anglers; if their droppings kill some vegetation, that’s nature’s way as well.

The shoreline would be a boring place if all you ever saw was a procession of perfect white gulls!

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