The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah by Linda R. Wires. New Haven, Yale University Press. 2013 368pp ISBN: 978-0-300-18711-3
I watch cormorants every day. Baltimore’s inner harbor is flush with several at any time. I first became enamored watching them drying their wings. In some cultures this is seen as a symbol of a cross. I have timed their dives in order to determine if there is a steady length to be underwater (there is not). I have noticed how as they swim on the surface of the water, their bodies sink beneath and have imagined that the photos of the Loch Ness Monster are actually images of cormorants.
They are not the sort of birds that people get excited about. From a distance they are black but browner with a closer look. They are sort of a blend of goose and duck in their body form. My own interest is more from the convenience of watching their behavior than any particular allure of the bird itself.
Wires on the other hand, is as passionate about these birds as many irritating pet lovers are of their Fidos and Mimis. While she presents much science in the book nothing of it is definitive. Her intention is to make a moral and ethical case that cormorants should be left to their evolutionary devices unfettered by humans and industry.
Her description of the conditions of cormorants is a new age and postmodern ideology that forsakes genuine science and logic. Science only has value to her when it agrees with her premises. The basic notion that cormorants are singled out as vile creatures and therefore killed in vast numbers may be accurate. She cites huge numbers of kills in what she calls “Cormorant Management” then asks a question, “Should ten thousand cormorants be killed in order to save a unique collection of trees on one island?” This sounds like the rant of anti-environmentalists when they want to develop beach front property. There is no consistency of science or logic in the book.
Essentially she is telling the reader that cormorants have been singled out as an unlikeable bird that preys on aquaculture and game fish. She cites many figures that appear to be walloping in their scope and simultaneously tells us that cormorants are not in danger of extinction. Her use of pejoratives continually through the book makes her case anthropomorphic. She uses phrases like “sheer hatred, vigilante action, nestlings broiling, Orwellian approach to management, cormorants as guilty of a crime, persecution”…it goes on forever and all in order to view her notions as if it was the Civil Rights movement.
A brief review of folklore about the bird is quite positive. Packard made one a hood ornament. Asians trained them as pets to fish for the family. A cormorant saved Ulysses life. They served to warn Norse sailors of potential harm. Milton, in Paradise Lost did use a cormorant to act as a disguise for Satan. Overwhelmingly the myths however are positive. It seems that Wire’s depictions of cormorants as a despised and “misunderstood” bird make up a very small population not withstanding her nearly hysterical assumptions.
I don’t think cormorants should be mindlessly slaughtered and agree with her idea that the science is not all there as to what the birds eat. If the science is not clear however, maybe the cormorant management side is correct. Science is not ethics or morality; it provides information for ethical decisions to be made. So if the current science is not clear then it is difficult to say that the management proponents are wrong. Wires selects the science that agrees with her premise but not the other way around. She also neglects the studies that she reports about the variation of food fish under management or sans it. Yellow perch for instance seem to thrive under cormorant management while the author suggests that the birds are not eating saleable fish. The data does suggest that they are eating fingerlings which flies in the face of Wires’ contention for the need for long term planning regarding the species. She uses science only when it is convenient. If the cormorant is eating fingerlings what does that suggest about future generations? Using her quote above makes me question her understanding of biota. It is all a food chain so should the cormorant usurp the life of unique biota on an island then in fact we should be looking for cormorant management.
I like cormorants. Prior to reading her book I had never once understood them to be hated by anyone. I am not in favor of mass killings in order to enhance industry. I read science only for what it is and do recognize that there are biases in that field. In the end science gives us the information to make sound decisions but only if we do not select out the data we do not like.
I assume that the statistics Wires cited are correct and on the surface that seems appalling. While she assures the reader that the bird is safe from extinction for the time being, her pleas to the reader are so emotionally laden that it makes it difficult for this reader to take the book seriously. It is more the author’s hobby horse. It provided integral information only rarely. Its intention is to make us fraught at the plight of the cormorant rather than to provide ideas for successful long term wildlife management.