In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

‘Trick Mirror’

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Because It’s UglyJonathan Rosen
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah 
by Linda Wires.
Yale, 349 pp., £20, June 2014, 978 0 300 18711 3
Show More
Show More

I fell​ in love with double-crested cormorants twenty years ago, partly out of gratitude. I had just started watching birds, I was terrible at it, and the big black creatures – two and a half feet tall, with a wingspan of more than four feet – were easy to find, even in my field guide. Unlike the variegated wood warblers flitting from page to page deep inside the book, the cormorants lived at the front with the pelicans, and like them had rubbery skin stretching from their lower mandibles. The ancient fish-eaters didn’t have the colour and elegance of songbirds, but like silent movie stars they had faces. They also had bodies that I could see flying fast over Manhattan, their kinked wings creating an unmistakable silhouette, like the Batman signal. They rode low over the water of the Central Park Reservoir, their periscope necks and long hooked bills giving them away, until they dived. Cormorant feathers aren’t waterproof, a seeming defect that helps them descend to great depths, though when they’re done they have to hang themselves out to dry. I’d see them lounging on the rocks, spreading their sodden wings wide.

In The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah Linda Wires, a conservation biologist at the University of Minnesota, passionately defends what turns out – weirdly – to be perhaps the most hated bird in America. I knew that ease of identification wasn’t everyone’s criterion for affection, but I hadn’t realised the depth of loathing the bird inspires, or considered the federal policies that facilitate its destruction. Linda Wires thinks people hate double-crested cormorants more than is warranted, and kill them without cause. Combining natural history, policy analysis and rhapsodic appreciation, she’s produced a book in which context matters for animals as much as it does for people. She would like us to see the whole bird – biologically, historically, culturally – and to understand the way ancient animosities can influence modern environmental policy.

Cormorants have been around for more than thirty million years; they live on every continent and thrive even in the Arctic, though they evolved in the tropics. There are six species native to North America, but the double-crested is by far the most widespread. Though it almost vanished, like several other waterbirds, thanks to plume hunting in the 19th century, it made a comeback in the first half of the 20th, a rally that ended abruptly when farmers began using DDT and other chemicals that contaminated waterways, thinned eggshells and caused birth defects. It was only in the 1970s, after DDT was banned and environmental protections were put in place during the Nixon administration, that the double-crested cormorant began its second return.

Today the bird is found not only along the coasts, where most cormorants live, but also in the interior, where fishermen in the Great Lakes and fish farmers in the South have declared war on it. They’ve been abetted by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which in 1998 issued what Wires calls an ‘unprecedented’ order that allowed fish farmers to kill the bird without a licence. The order was a turning point, as was ‘a vigilante-style slaying of cormorants’ on Little Galloo, an island in Lake Ontario, in July 1998. Wires quotes an account of the destruction in the New York Times: ‘heaps of carcasses of fledgling cormorants, piles of shotgun shells and starving chicks squawking weakly amid the carnage’. The slaughter was carried out by nine men, several of them fishing guides who felt the birds were ruining their business by eating too many smallmouth bass, and harming tourism by stinking up and denuding the islands where they nested. The killers became local heroes likened to the patriots of the Boston Tea Party. They were fined and placed under house arrest, but their act encouraged the Fish and Wildlife Service to change its management strategy. In 2003 it issued an order that made it much easier for local agencies to kill cormorants, and for private citizens to call in the authorities to do it for them if they felt the birds were bad for business.

On the surface this seems an ordinary story of what conservationists call ‘human-wildlife conflict’. Government agencies ‘manage’ wild animal populations by balancing their needs against those of hunters, fishermen and businesspeople. They use noise machines to discourage nesting, spray eggs with oil to kill developing chicks without the parents finding out and laying more, and occasionally shoot birds. Wires is appalled that an ‘act of terrorism’ nudged a government agency further along a path she already felt was mistaken. She points out that the double-crested cormorant is a native bird that is treated like an invasive one, punished not in spite of its miserable past but because of it. The bird was beaten back by human persecution for so long that, now returned, it seems like an interloper, accused of invading its own ancestral range, and of displacing native species. Its real crime, it often seems, is that it outcompetes other species preferred for aesthetic reasons.

Wires raises questions she believes have been ignored, though they bear directly on practical decisions: what’s the difference between the number of birds a habitat can support and the number of birds people would like it to support? She argues that faulty science has been used to pin on a single bird the woes of an entire industry, whose decline has multiple causes. The American Ornithologists’ Union and the Audubon Society also dispute the findings of the studies of cormorants that the Fish and Wildlife Service relies on. How, she asks, can the same federal agency uphold both the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the interests of fish farmers and fishermen who want the birds removed? She thinks Canada, which doesn’t have a national bird management policy, behaves marginally better.

Wires doesn’t deny that the cormorant is a master fisherman. She exults in its hunting prowess: for centuries in China and Japan people used the great cormorant, the double-crested’s Asian cousin, to do their fishing. She cites a recent study of cormorants in the Arctic that shows they have ‘the highest foraging performance recorded for a marine predator … ten to thirty times higher than those recorded for other seabird species’. But Wires believes that the bird’s ‘athleticism and effectiveness’ are being held against it, for while it is extremely successful at catching fish, its rate of consumption relative to body mass is no higher than that of many other species, and lower than some. Cormorants are opportunistic feeders, and often catch ‘trash fish’, not the species prized by fishermen. (This doesn’t apply at fish farms, where there are no trash fish and which offer all-you-can-eat buffets to cormorants.) Double-crested cormorants typically eat fish six inches in length, though they can eat fish more than twice that size, helped by the rubbery region at the base of the bill – the gular pouch – that gives them a family resemblance to pelicans (though this is probably a case of convergent evolution). Compared to the pelican’s three-gallon suitcase, a cormorant has a carry-on bag: but you don’t see hats and T-shirts depicting pelicans inside rifle crosshairs under the words ‘Zero Tolerance’.

Wires argues that the birds are not only victims of their success but of a prejudice inscribed in the minds of Europeans long before they arrived in North America. Shakespeare uses the word ‘cormorant’ as a synonym for rapacious appetite: ‘cormorant devouring time’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost; ‘cormorant war’ in Troilus and Cressida. In the ancient world the birds were seen not merely as greedy but as somehow unnatural. The family name Phalacrocoracidae ‘bald ravens’ – was derived from Aristotle, who called the cormorant ‘hydrokorax’, ‘water raven’. Like the raven, to which it bears a metaphorical though not morphological relationship, the cormorant still has an aura of ill omen attached to it.

This aspect of Wires’s book adds an important dimension to her portrait. Still, I’m not convinced that the biblical designation of the bird as ‘unclean’ or ‘an abomination’ contributes to its current pariah status. And I’m not sure that the blackness of the bird, of which Wires makes much, stirs deeper prejudice: the New York Department of Conservation recently announced that it was going to kill every mute swan in the state. (The mute swan actually is an invasive species.) Indeed, our view of the cormorant as a monochrome bird is myopic; as Wires points out, its black feathers have hints of blue, green and copper. It’s possible that the birds, which can probably detect the ultraviolet spectrum, see something very different when they look at one another.

Wires may be right to invoke the biblical notion of uncleanness, though not for the reason she gives. In Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas identifies ‘unclean’ creatures as those that inhabit multiple realms and live between categories. That’s the source of their ‘danger’. The cormorant – which nests on the ground as well as in trees, and which flies, dives, floats and walks (badly) – provokes primitive anxiety because it never stays in one place. (Of course, by Douglas’s definition, human beings are the ultimate unclean abomination.) ‘Different from all others and conspicuously successful, the cormorant cannot escape notice,’ Wires writes. We notice the bird too much but see it too little. It’s most graceful when least observed, moving underwater as easily as other birds move in air. By the time I saw it on the rocks in Central Park, it had turned into a broken umbrella poking out of a bin after a shower on a windy day.

For all its conspicuousness, the double-crested cormorant possesses a subtle magic. I needed Wires to draw my attention to its emerald eye, ‘often described as one of the most beautiful in the world of birds’, and to tell me that the lining of its mouth turns cobalt blue in the breeding season, when two tiny tufts of pale feathers sprout from either side of its head, making it look like David Ben-Gurion. Though these tufts last only a few weeks, and aren’t often noticed, they give the bird its name. How was it possible for me to see so little of a bird I thought I knew? And to know so little of a bird I thought I saw? Perhaps it was the bird’s cloaked aspect, as much as its infernal associations, that led Milton to choose a cormorant for Satan’s disguise in Paradise Lost when he flaps into Eden to spy on Adam and Eve. What better way to hide in plain sight?

Wires first began to appreciate the bird in 1998. That summer she was part of a research team sent by the US Department of Agriculture to draw blood from cormorant chicks on a tiny island in the northern reaches of Lake Michigan. She was moved by the ‘desolation of the place and the wildness of the people’, and by her realisation that the birds were vulnerable, despite their reputation and the hatred of the local fishermen. She watched chicks being eaten by seagulls because she and her colleagues had frightened the adult birds away from their nests. She drew blood from surviving chicks, and the intimacy of the encounter made her feel ‘as though I were seeing cormorants and their world for the first time’.

The cormorant has been getting some decent attention lately. Last year saw the publication of The Devil’s Cormorant by Richard King, a fine study of several species of the bird on several continents, as well as an argument against its shabby treatment in the US. In 2012 Denis Wild published The Double-Crested Cormorant: Symbol of Ecological Conflict. A decade earlier, Lyanda Lynn Haupt in Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds spoke up for them. (Double-crested cormorants are nearly mute, and only make what King describes as ‘piglike grunts, little barks and croaking sounds’.)

It may be that our species will always need scapegoats. In 19th-century America, war was declared on house sparrows. In 20th-century China, Mao launched the Four Pests Campaign – also known as the Kill a Sparrow Campaign – which galvanised an army of children into targeting tree sparrows, along with rats, flies and mosquitoes. The destruction of the sparrow proved so disastrous, as insects proliferated and rice production fell, that the bird was eventually taken off the hit list, to be replaced by bedbugs. The double-crested cormorant is certainly a scapegoat: a bird that fought back from near extermination only to be treated like a colonial interloper.

It’s worth turning again to Mary Douglas, who, in Leviticus as Literature, tells us that when asked why a person who touched the scriptures had to wash his hands a sage responded: ‘As is their preciousness so is their uncleanness.’ In other words, holy things are also unclean things – indeed they cause uncleanness – and things deemed unclean are also holy. Douglas writes not only about scapegoats but about ‘scapebirds’. In the Bible there are two goats in the ritual of atonement: one is killed as a ‘sin offering’ while the other, the ‘scapegoat’, is set free. Similarly, there are two birds: one is sacrificed on the altar; the other, the ‘scapebird’, is dipped in the blood, used for a ritual of purification, then released. We’ve already had our sacrificial cormorant, the one we’ve loaded with our sins, blamed for our own worst qualities and killed. We now need to discover the second bird, and like the high priest let ‘the living bird go out of the city into the open field’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Letters

Vol. 36 No. 21 · 6 November 2014

I live a few dozen nautical miles from Little Galloo Island, mentioned by Jonathan Rosen as the site of what Linda Wires calls an ‘act of terrorism’ against cormorants (LRB, 9 October). Rosen’s article may inadvertently suggest there is some doubt about the denuding of islands by these birds in the last several decades. It is sadly all too easily observed that in eastern Lake Ontario all islands below a certain size (at less than an acre, presumably too small to support a population of predators?) have had their trees and bushes killed by cormorants, whose antics also ensure that no regrowth occurs. Cormorant flock sizes have shrunk back noticeably since a peak some ten years ago, but fish numbers even in shallow bays remain tiny. Snorkelling around here, I almost never see any fish other than a few bass and plenty of gobies, who are busy eating zebra mussels. These last two species are recent invasives, arriving hereabouts only some twenty and thirty years ago respectively (from the Black Sea via ship ballast water discharges into the Great Lakes/St Lawrence River drainage system). The mussels thrived immediately and denied nutrients to the algae that dominated the water during my youth. Suddenly the waters were as clear in high summer as they only ever used to be in winter. Now, when we go boating, we are frequently alarmed by reefs we used not to be able to see at all. Clearly these waters have been afflicted by many and various human-caused environmental abuses for at least two centuries and it would be ridiculous to blame the cormorants for any of these. But the fact remains that they are not good community members at this stage in the story. We used to picnic in the shade of grand elms on the nearby Brother Islands. Now we can only visit these places in the dead of winter: in the summer the smell is indescribable. If Wires thinks cormorants have rights, why not trees too?

Colin Duncan
Kingston, Ontario

Vol. 36 No. 22 · 20 November 2014

Regarding Derek Schulz’s trenchant ruminations from New Zealand about the parlous future of the Kiwi shag, I suggest it has been that way since Christopher Isherwood sounded his clarion warning in about 1925 (Letters, 23 October):

The common cormorant (or shag)
Lays eggs inside a paper bag,
The reason you will see no doubt –
It is to keep the lightning out.
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

The terrible non-rhyme at the end suggests that Isherwood could be as unobservant as the shag, or cormorant.

David Cobb
Toronto

Vol. 36 No. 20 · 23 October 2014

‘Cormorant’ is a lovely word, but you won’t find it in a New Zealand dictionary because down here in the South Pacific we calls them ‘shags’ (LRB, 9 October). This is something the omnisciently erudite James Joyce can’t have known when he wrote, ‘I would like to send a cormorant around this blue lagoon’ in Finnegans Wake. Something else he probably didn’t know is that a third of the world’s shag species find a home in these islands, though successive New Zealand governments decided to go one better than the US in culling these birds at the behest of recreational fishermen. They put a bounty on their heads and as a result we now have some of the rarest shag species in the world, though this hasn’t stopped the country marketing itself as ‘100 per cent pure’: ‘100 per cent shagged’ would be closer to the mark.

Derek Schulz
Raumati Beach, New Zealand

Vol. 36 No. 23 · 4 December 2014

As a footnote to the correspondence about cormorants, it should be noted that in Britain the shag and the cormorant are different species (Letters, 6 November and Letters, 20 November). The shag is a smaller and scarcer bird, found only in coastal habitats, mainly in the north and west; the cormorant is less fussy, being happy to fish inland waters as well as the sea.

Richard Sellwood
Ewhurst, Surrey

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.