The Hamilton Spectator

Cor­morants in the crosshairs

A new bill would put them on the shoot-to-kill list

- Thomas Walkom’s col­umn ap­pears in Torstar news­pa­pers. THOMAS WALKOM Animals · Zoology · Canada News · Ecology · Wildlife · Biology · Turkey · Ontario · Iceland · Belgium · Belarus · Austria · Trenton · Legislative Assembly of Ontario · Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters · Canadian Wildlife Service

Pity the dou­ble-crested cor­morant. This re­mark­ably re­silient bird has long been in gov­ern­ment’s crosshairs. Now the On­tario leg­is­la­ture is con­sid­er­ing a bill that would put it, lit­er­ally, on the shoot-to-kill list.

Ear­lier this month, MPPs qui­etly gave sec­ond read­ing ap­proval to a pri­vate mem­ber’s bill that would add the cor­morant to the list of birds — in­clud­ing crows and star­lings — that can be shot on sight.

Con­ser­va­tive MPP Robert Bai­ley (Sar­nia-Lambton) told the leg­is­la­ture that his Bill 205 is de­signed to deal with what he called a pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion among cor­morants.

But the bill also echoes rec­om­men­da­tions from the On­tario Fed­er­a­tion of An­glers and Hun­ters, which has been call­ing for just such a law.

The an­gling lobby has never much liked cor­morants, ar­gu­ing they eat fish that might oth­er­wise be caught by hu­mans.

In fact, ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s Cana­dian Wildlife Ser­vice, that’s not true. Stud­ies show that less than two per cent of a cor­morant’s diet con­sists of sport fish, such as lake trout or salmon.

And less than one per cent of a cor­morant’s diet is made up of the fish that sport fish eat.

Cor­morants do eat a lot. That’s true. But they tend to eat fish that hu­mans don’t want.

As the fed­eral en­vi­ron­ment depart­ment notes in one pub­li­ca­tion: “Stud­ies have re­peat­edly shown that, in a nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment, cor­morants feed pri­mar­ily on small, non-com­mer­cial, shal­low-wa­ter fish.”

Nor is the cor­morant pop­u­la­tion ex­plod­ing ex­po­nen­tially. The fed­eral gov­ern­ment no longer tracks cor­morants on the Great Lakes. But when it stopped do­ing so, in 2011, the rate of pop­u­la­tion in­crease had started to level off.

So what is it about the cor­morant that so irks peo­ple?

Partly, it is the ex­cre­ment. Like herons, cor­morants nest in colonies. They defe­cate a lot. Their drop­pings smell foul. They can also kill the veg­e­ta­tion sur­round­ing the trees in which they nest.

But there is also some­thing about cor­morants that is mag­nif­i­cently alarm­ing. They travel in packs, glid­ing just a few feet off the sur­face as they tra­verse lakes search­ing for food. They don’t get out of the way.

To run into a con­voy of cor­morants on Lake On­tario is rather like run­ning into a bike gang.

They are im­pres­sive; they are also slightly in­tim­i­dat­ing.

Cer­tainly, the hu­man-cor­morant re­la­tion­ship has not been an easy one. While ex­perts agree the bird is na­tive to On­tario, there is some dis­pute as to when they ar­rived on the Great Lakes.

But by the 1940s, com­mer­cial fish­er­men were al­ready com­plain­ing that cor­morants were eat­ing into their busi­ness. (As it turns out, the real prob­lem fac­ing the Great Lakes fish­ery at the time was hu­man over-fish­ing).

Still, the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment obliged by de­stroy­ing cor­morant eggs.

It was in­ad­ver­tently aided in this by the dump­ing, into the Great Lakes, of lethal con­tam­i­nants such as DDT that weak­ened cor­morant eggs.

By 1970, cor­morants on the Great Lakes had been al­most en­tirely wiped out.

Their re­cov­ery, once these con­tam­i­nants had been banned, was near mirac­u­lous. The cor­morant pop­u­la­tion re­ally did ex­plode — from a hand­ful of nest­ing pairs to thou­sands.

With this re­bound came a re­newal of the old ri­valry be­tween birds and hu­mans. The fish­ing lobby be­gan to com­plain again. In 2004 and 2005, On­tario’s Lib­eral gov­ern­ment authorized a mass cull of cor­morants on two small is­lands in a pro­vin­cial park near Trenton — tech­ni­cally to pro­tect the en­vi­ron­ment.

More than 11,000 birds were shot. Eggs in more than 3,000 ground nests were oiled to prevent hatch­ing.

More than 2,000 tree nests were de­stroyed.

Now, in Bill 205, they face a new threat — vig­i­lante jus­tice.

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