Championing the Cormorant: Why experts argue this water bird is unfairly vilified

Who will speak for the cormorant? This unusual water bird gets culled by humans for overfishing and killing trees. But maybe it is humans and their cultural assumptions that are the source of the problem, say defenders of the cormorant, who include a Milton scholar, an artist, an ecologist, and the poet laureate of South Carolina.

Conservationists, ecologists, and artists say it’s time to re-evaluate our perception of cormorants

The cormorant is sometimes managed by culling, due to its perceived overfishing and tree destruction. But defenders of this common water bird suggest maybe it's humans and their cultural assumptions that are the source of the problem. (Rhona Wise/AFP via Getty Images)

*Originally published on October 6, 2021.

Along lakeshores and sea coasts, one bird draws particularly unsettled attention from humans. 

The cormorant is a striking, dark bird that perches on rocks and cliffs. They live in large colonies across the continent. They're seen negatively by many of their human neighbours, but some experts say that is a mix of misperception and appearances.

It is "very lean, and (with) its wings outspread, it looks a bit frightening," literary scholar Karen Edwards told IDEAS.

The cormorant is often characterized as a pest. The most common North American variety — double-crested cormorants — are often accused of depleting fish stocks, and killing trees with the acidic droppings from their nests. 

Both of those perceptions are arguable, says some experts: other bird species eat a lot of fish, too, and the natural behaviour of beavers also modifies their wooded habitat. 

But the reaction to cormorants has been different. They've been culled in their Pacific Northwest, Prairie, and the Great Lakes breeding grounds — as well as in the Mississippi River Delta, where they migrate each fall. 

Some conservationists and observers despair at this practice. They argue that the bird deserves more understanding from humans, if not respect.

A bad historical reputation

An uncharitable view of cormorants may have emerged partly through their depiction in literature. 

From a La Fontaine fable about the cormorant's greed, to a 1986 horror novel called The Cormorant, the birds are imbued with negative characteristics more usually associated with humans. 

Somehow there is a sense that there's something bad about this bird. It's almost like a kind of a folk memory that gets passed down.- Karen Edwards

That practice has a long tradition.

"Milton uses a cormorant in a very prominent position in Paradise Lost as a metaphor for the Garden of Eden," said Edwards, who is also a professor at Exeter University.

While not everyone reads Milton, these associations with evil, dread, and uncleanliness follow the cormorant into the present day, Edwards said.

"Somehow there is a sense that there's something bad about this bird. It's almost like a kind of a folk memory that gets passed down."

A native species treated as invasive

Gail Fraser is acutely aware of the real-world consequences of the cormorants' cultural reputation. 

The behavioural ecologist and professor at York University studies a large colony of double-crested cormorants at the Leslie Street Spit in Toronto.

She says the birds have recovered admirably after pollution caused the North American cormorant population to decline precipitously during the 1960s and 1970s. 

Toronto’s Leslie Street Spit hosts North America’s largest colony of double-crested cormorants. Sometimes known colloquially as the 'devil bird,' cormorants inspired Toronto artist Cole Swanson's 2019 multimedia installation, Devil’s Colony. (Cole Swanson)

Yet now, Fraser says, "They are seen as hyper-abundant." 

Their fortunes could change again. "The U.S. has undertaken a depredation order that was issued about 15 years ago, and they've killed over half a million cormorants." 

Such reactions may have less to do with the nature of this native bird, she thinks, and more to do with how their habits clash with our ideas about nature.

"We have these priceless — priceless to us — green spaces," said Fraser. "And then an agent of change like cormorants arrives and we think, this is not good."

Cormorants and race

One cultural ecologist thinks that the bird's dark feathers have something to do with the antipathy toward it.

"Blackness in itself is problematic for lots of people," said J. Drew Lanham, a professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University. 

Here is a bird that gets no respect, in many ways, that has been endangered by environmental contaminants, that has experienced this persecution.- J. Drew Lanham

He is a poet, and author of books including the Homeplace: Memoirs of a Colored Man's Love Affair with Nature. 

Lanham points out that in contrast with these black birds, white swans are seen as beautiful and worthy — despite their documented aggressiveness, even toward humans.

For him, the cormorant's plight offers an important lesson in the ways that cultural bias can influence conservation policy, and in the ways in which nature is implicated in human history. 

J. Drew Lanham, a poet as well as a conservationist, finds a parallel between one black bird and his own Black life. He sees himself in the cormorant, and feels for it. (Camilla Cere)

He makes a parallel with the historical experience of African-Americans.

"Here is a bird that gets no respect, in many ways, that has been endangered by environmental contaminants, that has experienced this persecution." 

As a Black Southerner, a writer, and a conservationist concerned with bridging the gaps between social and environmental justice, Lanham says that the cormorant's story is an important one. 

"It becomes important for me as a way to tell the story of how blackness in itself, can lead to this disrespect, this devaluation."

Art as a way to promote understanding

Toronto artist Cole Swanson has come to value the cormorant, which he finds a "quite stunning" and impressively adaptive creature, "perfectly engineered" for grace in swimming and flight.

At the same time, he acknowledges that they are not easy for humans to relate to, and this difference from us, as well as their cultural reputation, has led to the cormorants' outsider status.

"I think cormorants are almost like an imaginary thing in the minds of most people," he said. "It's something you read about. It's almost like a bogeyman. And it's hard to empathize with the bogeyman." 

This close up shot of a double-crested cormorant was taken by a nest camera set up by artist Cole Swanson. His art exhibit Devil’s Colony examines the sociocultural, material, and scientific relationships between humans and the often-reviled colonial species, double-crested cormorants. (Cole Swanson)

In an effort to engender a deeper empathy through art, he created the multimedia installation Devil's Colony, based on his close observation and interactions with a colony of double-crested cormorants in Toronto. 

Swanson says he has come to love the cormorants, and even initiated a petition to end Ontario's cormorant hunt.

The future of cormorants   

Given their near-decimation just 50 years ago, ecologist Gail Fraser suggests reframing the narrative around the species. 

"Cormorants are a story of persistence and recovery, and it would be good if we could look at that, and think about the resiliency of nature."

Right now, the cormorant is an abundant bird. But given human attitudes and climate change, that might not always be the case, warns Drew Lanham.

"From a conservation standpoint, we react when it seems that species are about to go extinct. But why don't we act before we reach that point? As we experience these billions of birds being lost, we have to think about keeping common birds, common." 

Guests in this episode:

Karen Edwards is a professor of Renaissance LIterature at the University of Exeter.

Gail Fraser is a behavioural ecologist and professor in the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University.

J. Drew Lanham is a cultural ecologist and the Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University. He is also the author of The Homeplace, Sparrow Envy, and the forthcoming Range Maps: Birds, Blackness and Loving Nature Between the Two. He is also the poet laureate of Edgefield, South Carolina.

Cole Swanson is a Toronto multimedia artist who explores the intersection of nature and humanity. His exhibition Devil's Colony featured his work with the city's colony of double crested cormorants.

*This episode was produced by Ruth Jones, with Lisa Godfrey.

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