Because It’s Ugly
- BuyThe 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.
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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.
Raumati Beach, New Zealand
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?
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.
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.