The cormorant is an interesting bird. It has a long history of interaction with humans, and most of this time the cormorant was presented as surprisingly bad. I encountered one this last weekend, but observations of it are not all that common around here.
The cormorant is perhaps the most vilified of birds, a status that seems to go back many centuries and is offered with various justifications. This vilification can be illustrated by the government of Ontario, where in 2020, licenced hunters were allowed to shoot up to fifteen cormorants a day. This was justified by the claim that cormorants were harming fish stocks and damaging natural habitats with their guano. Yet, many other predator species who do likewise were ignored. Why cormorants? The answer seems to date back centuries, even millennia.
Two somewhat early references to the evilness of cormorants were from the seventeenth century, each of which was redolent of much earlier attitudes. In the 1667 poem, Paradise Lost (Book 4), Milton casts the devil in the guise of a cormorant (4. 196-8), spying on Adam and Eve, and a year later one of La Fontaine’s Fables presents the cormorant as the epitome of greed. Now, it turns out that this later was just a retelling of an Aesop’s fable <https://fablesofaesop.com/cormorant-fishes.html>. So, we have at least 2600 years of writing about the cormorant’s villainy. Hmm…, unlike other early fables (such as the flat earth), it appears that this is one which lives on into the present.
The Audubon society treats the American history of cormorant persecution <https://www.audubon.org/news/without-solid-science-government-plans-expand-cormorant-killing-efforts>. It concludes by saying, “We’re seeing the birds scapegoated because that’s the easy and convenient thing to do.”
In 2014, Richard King wrote The Devil’s Cormorant: a Natural History (University of New Hampshire Press. 352 pp.) in which he traces the long history of man’s relationship with the cormorant. Although some oriental societies value it, western societies systematically denounce it as a symbol of gluttony, greed, bad luck, and evil. The cormorant has truly led a troubled existence in human history, myth, and literature. As King romps over centuries, he describes the slaughter of 20,000 Double-crested Cormorants in 1998 by a group calling itself the Concerned Citizens for Cormorant Control. This group of local fishermen merely saw the cormorants as competitors for the fish of Lake Ontario. Well, the list goes on.
Humans have had a two to three thousand year history of vilifying the cormorant although the reasons given have varied over time and the cormorant is hardly alone as a predator. (Indeed, mankind is also a predator.) In the face of natural variation, we have chosen to cast blame on the cormorant and then have taken the easy route and killed many thousands of them.
A Double-crested Cormorant rests on a piling. Of three species of cormorants in BC, this is the only one that is occasionally found in the interior. It is a pleasant observation.