Because It’s Ugly

Jonathan Rosen

  • The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah by Linda Wires
    Yale, 349 pp, £20.00, June 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 18711 3

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’.