Volume 14, Issue 18 ~ May 4 - May 10, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton


Are these odd ducks foes or fellow fishermen?

Over the past half century and more, I have come across many definitions for the word predator.

Many outdoorsmen define a predator as anything that hunts or fishes for what I hunt or fish for. Ask these types what’s the best way to successfully compete with competition and they’ll tell you “Erase it.”

Think of the foxes, hawks, owls, wolves, mountain lions, ospreys, raptors, herons, even household cats that have been done in by a small band of greedy hunters and fishermen who consider anything else that hunts or fishes for their target species as competition to be eliminated.

To hell with the balance of nature. It should be tilted in my favor. I’m a human being, I’m at the top of the chain, and what I want belongs to me.

That seems to be how that avaricious minority thinks. Others of their fraternity afield or on the water endure a bad image because of the doings of them.

I think of this when I’m tempted to rid the woods skirting the east side of my Riviera Beach household of the hawks that take an increasing toll of songbirds — doves and sparrows, sometimes a pigeon — that visit the bird feeders.

The hawks don’t leave much evidence, just enough to remind me they are around. There’s really not much I can legally do about it; they’re protected by state and federal law. Plus, when you get right down to it, their need for food is greater than mine of backyard bird watching.

But I’m thinking of another kind of winged bird that is the object of much scorn on the Chesapeake, one some consider a vile predator competing for their targets in the sport of fishing.

Meet the cormorant, a big and somewhat graceful bird increasing in numbers around Chesapeake Bay, a bird accused of catching and eating the very same fish we want to catch and eat.

Natural History of the Cormorant

We’ll get into competition, but first a bit about the cormorant, which is also referred to as black goose, fish goose and other less socially accepted monikers. There are two cormorants, the great and the double crested, ours being the latter and known by scientists as the Phalacrocorax auritus.

The double-crested variety is a streamlined water bird of raven-like black with a snaky neck and hook-tipped bill. It is darker and has a longer tail than a traditional goose or loon. It’s a good swimmer; often only its head, neck and upturned bill are visible in the water. It flies with its wings flapping something like a heron’s. You’ll often see them in a flock that’s long, low to the water and swift.

With its head held high (loons carry their heads low), it flies in intermittent glides. I sometimes wonder whether it is conserving energy or looking for a meal. Probably both.

Cormorants rest on pilings, markers or any other stationary perch, often with wings at spread-eagle, drying. Because its feathers are not waterproof like those of loons, ducks or geese, it must dry them by spreading and flapping.

It usually nests on the ground, in colonies, preferring rocks and ledges though sometimes trees will do. It is usually silent, though sometimes when alarmed it will send forth a rather weird croak. It dives, though not as gracefully as a loon, and swims underwater with large webbed feet, using its tail as a rudder.

Cormorants can live for 15 to 20 years, breeding in the U.S. and Canada, and wintering from New York to the central states.

Adults, growing to 30 to 36 inches, are black. If you look closely, you’ll see an orange throat pouch but never any white. The immature bird is more brownish with breast and forebelly rather whitish.

Fellow Fishermen

Adult or immature, cormorants eat fish. That’s the rub — especially as cormorants increase and many popular species of fish decline.

The Chinese of yore forgave the cormorant for its diet of fish; matter of fact they used it to their advantage. The bird — wearing a ring around its throat to prevent it from swallowing — was sent aloft to search for fish. When the bird caught a fish, it was tugged back to earth by a string and the catch was removed, to end up on the table of the owner.

We prefer to do our own catching. For us it’s competition, for which countless cormorants have been persecuted, harassed and slaughtered in coastal areas. The species also had a close call 25 or more years ago due to DDT contamination, which also threatened other birds, among them the osprey and the eagle.

Today the bird has been removed from most states’ threatened and endangered designations. But what about the fish these increasing numbers of birds feed upon?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service considers cormorants as part of the ecosystem and has no plans to remove them from the protected list though they are known to make big dents in aquacultured fish — salmon and catfish in particular — not to mention fish in the wild.

Among other things, they like crabs, which prompts one to wonder how they missed being accused at least for part of the blame for our crab problems. They also eat shrimp and a variety of small fishes, from sticklebacks to flounder.

Researchers have discovered no definite preference in cormorants; stomachs examined have shown wide varieties. It seems they get hungry and take what they can get, with toadfish, menhaden and hogchokers being the most available.

Stomach contents of birds from the Poplar Island rookery also included eels, bluefish, naked gorbies and pipefish, the latter something akin to the sea horse though less horsy. What, no rockfish?

So the jury is still out on the environmental impact of this bird, whose population appeared to have dropped to an all time low in the 1970s to rebound remarkably in the past 15 years. Some even nest in Maryland now, with the first breeding colony documented at Poplar Island in 1990 when 55 pairs bred, according to DNR.

The cormorant obviously is back to stay, and as far as this writer is concerned it is welcome. Also welcome to share some of the fish I seek. I don’t look upon it as a competitor — just another fisherman. There’s room for all of us. Enough said …

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