AMATEUR NATURALIST

The survival of the cormorants

Posted June 06, 2011, at 12:09 a.m.
Last modified July 12, 2011, at 10:47 a.m.
A cormorant dries its wings on Tuesday, May 17, 2011 in Calais, Vt.
Toby Talbot | AP
A cormorant dries its wings on Tuesday, May 17, 2011 in Calais, Vt.

Amateur naturalistIn a past life I seem to remember on Casco Bay, there was a bird the fishermen called shag, and they disliked it. For my part I remember thinking the shag were kind of cool when they were arrowing in straight lines a few feet above the water in fighter-jet formations.They were less cool when they were swimming because it seemed like they could barely float. The water washed up over the base of their necks, and they held their orange beaks up the way you hold your face when you’re learning to dog paddle.

They looked like a low-rider sea gull-duck. Sea gulls to me were idiots, and it was years before duck beauty dawned on me. I still kind of think sea gulls are idiots, but even then I didn’t believe they deserved death. My 11-year-old mind was shocked one sunlit afternoon when I was gazing from a wharf on Mackerel Cove and saw a fisherman cruise up in his outboard beside a hapless floating gull and kill it with a bait pick, like a Cossack mowing down a peasant. Feathers went everywhere and he buzzed away with the gull crumpled on the water.

Even then, gulls were government-protected, I think, though it didn’t matter to some fishermen, who it turned out thought the gulls and especially the shag, or cormorants as I eventually learned to call them, threatened their livelihood by eating too many fish.

Settlers in New England, thinking their survival was at stake, set about early on to get rid of double-crested cormorants, and by the early 1800s the birds had been extirpated from our region. But they have a huge range in the world, and by the 1920s they were documented to be nesting again in Maine. The fishing industry saw them as such a threat that in the 1940s and ’50s oil was systematically sprayed on some 188,000 eggs to get rid of them. It didn’t really work. By the mid-1960s a number of harvestable fish species were noticeably declining, and studies showed the cormorants were at least eating a lot of Atlantic salmon hatchery smolts and interfering with the new restoration project. Double-crested cormorants were shot by the hundreds.

In 1972 they came under federal protection, and their numbers increased through the turn of the recent century. Whether the cormorants have a significant impact on populations of harvestable wild fish has not been established, though the common wisdom among many fishermen seems to be they do. But they still ate too many salmon smolts in the 1980s, according to studies, and with populations increasing through the 1990s, federal money made its way Down East-ward in 2004 for more studies to figure out how to deter them without having to kill them. Firecrackers, lasers and shooing them away from smolt-run areas seemed to work in one experiment on the Narraguagus River in 2004-05.

Different species of cormorants live in lake and ocean areas all over the world. In our parts we see mostly double-crested cormorants and from time to time great cormorants, which are coast dwellers. The double-crested cormorant has an orange throat pouch, and the great cormorant has a white neck patch. They dive from the surface to catch fish, and their featherage absorbs water for ballast to keep them down. After a round of fishing, they perch clumsily on a rock outcrop or a buoy and spread their waterlogged wings to dry them.

As a kid I thought they were cool again when they dove. They stayed down for what seemed like impossible periods of time, popping up feet and yards from where they disappeared. Decades later, they pop into sight again, silent squadrons of two or three angling along with Doppler-like precision a few feet over over the Penobscot River. They vibrate some living thread between here and boyhood. It’s good the cormorants are still fishing hereabouts, even though they’re so hungry they get in the way. We are all just surviving.

Dana Wilde’s collection of Amateur Naturalist writings, “The Other End of the Driveway,” is now available in paperback and electronic version  at www.booklocker.com or from your local book seller.

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