Not many people like cormorants, but should hunters be allowed to kill 50 birds per day?

Conservationists are speaking out about a provincial proposal to open up a new hunting season for double-crested cormorants that could see each hunter kill 14,000 birds a year.

Ontario's proposed hunting season would allow each hunter to kill 14,000 cormorants in a year

A double-crested cormorant surfaces after catching dinner. Many Ontario fishermen say the bird is hurting their livelihoods. (Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press)

If you visit their largest North American nesting ground in Toronto's Tommy Thompson park, you'll realize cormorants aren't the prettiest birds — and they're definitely not the cleanest.

The air smells like fish from their vomit, and in the past, their acidic feces has killed thousands of the park's trees.

In the last few years, the birds have spread across the province, their colonies multiplying by the thousands on shorelines. Landowners have complained about the destruction of vegetation and fishermen blame the bird's diet for hurting their livelihoods.

Now the province is considering controlling the double-crested cormorant by creating a hunting season for it. If approved, the policy would allow a hunter to kill up to 50 birds a day, with no limit on the number they could kill during a season. 

So, in theory, if hunters meet their daily quota every day during the proposed hunting period of March 15 to Dec. 31, they could each kill around 14,000 birds a year.

Hunters could 'take out an entire colony in a single day'

"The government's numbers are too high," said Jason Weir, an associate professor of biology at the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus.

Cormorants are encouraged to nest on the ground in Tommy Thompson park. This area used to be filled with trees before they were destroyed by the birds' feces. (Natalie Nanowski/CBC )

Weir, who studies conservation ecology and evolution, agrees the cormorant's numbers need to be controlled, but worries the method is irresponsible.

"These birds nest in colonies, so it would be quite easy for a hunter to go up to a colony where they're nesting and easily take out an entire colony in a single day."

Instead, Weir suggests lowering the daily limit and instituting a seasonal maximum as well.

When CBC News asked why the government is considering setting such a high limit, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry did not respond. 

Other birds could be affected 

Kyle Holloway, the manager of Wild Birds Unlimited in Etobicoke, says the proposed hunting season is problematic because it covers the cormorant's entire breeding period, and many other birds are nesting beside it during that time.

"Common terns and great blue herons can also nest in the same areas, so they can also have their breeding affected by this disruption," said Holloway.

One of the ways Toronto's Tommy Thompson park has minimized the negative effects of the cormorant, says Andrea Chreston with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, is by getting the birds to move their nests to the ground.

In the 1990s, the majority of cormorants were building their nests in park's trees. As a result of being covered in the cormorant's acidic feces, Chreston says all of the trees died.

A few trees on Tommy Thompson park still have cormorant nests in them. This one is slowly being destroyed by the birds' feces. It's now white and brittle without any bark left. (Natalie Nanowski/CBC)

Government looking for public input 

If entire colonies are eradicated, Weir says it's unclear how this would affect an area's ecosystem. Previously, cormorants were only found in northwestern Ontario, but in the last 100 years the species has spread and other animals have adapted as well. 

Even if the hunting season is created, the birds in Tommy Thompson park cannot be hunted. 

Public consultations for the policy have already begun and will run until January 3. Ontarians are encouraged to share their thoughts online or by phone. 


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