Ontario's New Scapegoat

The Double-crested Cormorant


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Photo by: Jim Richards

 

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Controversy over cormorant cull about to re-ignite

Kim Grove, Community Press
December 16, 2008

Brighton - The possible return of a cormorant cull at Presqu'ile Provincial Park after a two-year absence has once again aroused strong emotions on both sides of the issue.

The Ministry of Natural Resources has given the public until Dec. 29 to respond to a proposed project that includes managing cormorant populations on Gull and High Bluff Islands in Presqu’ile.

The ministry had a cormorant management plan in place until last year. Between 2003 and 2007, it reduced the bird’s numbers by oiling 91,760 eggs, and removing 13,020 nests. From 2004 to 2006, more than 10,800 cormorants were culled.

The ministry’s goal was to protect woodland habitat that is important to several species that are under threat throughout the Great Lakes, such as the monarch butterfly, the black-crowned night heron and the great egret.

Corina Brdar, a zone ecologist for the MNR, says Ontario Parks "scientifically assessed" the results of cormorant management in Presqu’ile and found that it “was effective in decreasing the damage to woodland habitat,” and allowing the trees and shrubs to begin to recover.

However, in 2008, without any management plan in place, cormorant numbers increased and the birds “colonized new, live trees for nesting, many of which are in areas used as habitat by other species.”

The MNR says “an ecosystem-based implementation plan is needed for the Presqu’ile Islands because the ecological integrity of the woodlands has been affected by both deer and cormorants,” Brdar said in a release. The proposal for cormorant management activities requires an environmental study report and public comment when the draft plan is released. A separate implementation plan for wildlife and vegetation management on the mainland will also be prepared and opportunity given for public to comment on it as well.

The ministry’s intention to reintroduce a management plan doesn’t sit well with some in the community but finds favour with others.

Doug McRae, a local naturalist, takes the view that the cormorants arrived in the area naturally and should be left alone.

“I’m of the belief that where there is a good argument for it, I can see managing cormorants, but I don’t believe there is a good argument for managing them at Presqu’ile,” McRae said. Populations of different bird species that have made their habitat in large numbers in Presqu’ile, such as the common tern, have naturally decreased, he said.

“It’s not a static thing. In the 1950s Presqu’ile had the largest common tern colony in North America but they faded by the 1970s and recently were replaced by ring-billed gulls, and at one point we had the largest population of ring-billed gulls nesting in the great lakes. These things are reflecting the environmental conditions that we live in.” Many of the cormorants are dying of botulism, McRae said.

“My bet is that if we were to leave it alone cormorants would be uncommon in the future.”

Fred Helleiner, a bird watcher respected for his knowledge of bird habitat in Presqu’ile, agrees with McRae that there is an aesthetic prejudice against the cormorant. The bird, referred to by early European settlers as the “crow duck,” is not considered attractive.

“If they were white like swans, which are actually a lot more damaging to the environment, they would love them, ” Helleiner said, referring to those who dislike the bird.

He said nature should be allowed to take care of itself.

“We don’t know enough to monkey around with individual elements in the system, without knowing how the whole system is going to respond,” Helleiner said, warning that the ecosystem is so complex that it could be disrupted by a cull.

Scott Anderson, a resident of Presqu’ile Bay, supports reducing cormorant numbers, even though they’re “magnificent birds to watch” in pursuit their prey. There are just too many of them.

“They literally destroy all the vegetation. They leave a layer of guano, that’s crap to ordinary people. And in fresh water, it’s deadly. It’s just like if you had a sewage treatment plant and you never bothered processing stuff and shoving it right into the lake. Saltwater and oceans absorb a lot of this but fresh water can’t.”

He has no objection to 100 or 200 pairs in Presqu’ile, but when their numbers reach the thousands they should be managed, he said.

“Don’t get me wrong. I love nature. I help nature every chance I get. I’ve planted thousands of trees in my time,” Anderson said. “The thing about these naturalists, they are very one-track-minded. They say you should leave everything and let it run its natural course. Well, if everything ran its natural course, guess what, we’d all be dead before we were 50. We cheat nature like you wouldn’t believe.”

McRae said cormorants shouldn’t be singled out as for their impact on the environment. “Cormorants kill trees where they nest; they always have and they always will. They are colonial birds which means they nest in large groups. All colonial birds kill vegetation with their droppings,” McRae said.

The cormorants have made their home on Gull and High Bluff islands, a bird sanctuary, and they should be left alone, he said.

McRae doesn’t buy the argument that the cormorant is affecting the number of rare birds seen at Presqu’ile. “The rare birds that are nesting in those trees started nesting in Presqu’ile after the cormorant had killed the trees,” he said, referring specifically to the great egret and the great blue heron. “I believe the cormorants promote biodiversity rather than limit it.”

The method of culling also distresses McRae, which he finds cruel; in 2004, the peak of the cull, 6,030 were shot.

They were killed “with .22 caliber rifles fitted with four power scopes, using a .22 calibre hollow-point subsonic bullet,” the MNR stated in a report on its strategy assessment for 2003-2006.

The disturbance to the bird habitat and the estimate that one-in-three cormorants fly off the island wounded concerns McRae.

They sometimes flap around with a broken wing for days, he said. “Can you imagine if the deer cull was conducted in such a way that a deer was seen running through the park for days with a broken leg or a leg shot off?”

The naturalists have also expressed concern to the ministry about the dead cormorant carcasses left on the island after they were culled.

“The Ministry of Environment forced the park to go out at the end of the summer and clean up these huge piles of dead cormorants that they’d piled up on High Bluff Island,” Helleiner said. The composted material was transported from High Bluff island in autumn 2005 and deposited in the landfill site in Brighton,” the MNR reported.

One group that is in favour of the cull is the anglers and hunters. They’ve told the Ministry of Environment that cormorants consume large, major sport fish such as lake trout and salmon as well as feed on the same prey fish that large predatory fish need for food. They also blame cormorants for depleting local supplies of pan fish, such as perch and bass.

The ministry counters that studies of cormorant diets in Lake Ontario show that less than two per cent of the prey found in cormorants is lake trout or salmon. Moreover, cormorants consume less than one per cent of the prey fish, “which is insignificant when compared to about 13 per cent taken by sport fish,” the MOE says on its website.

Not enough fish, too many birds – nature doesn’t balance things the way people would like it, Anderson said. “Everything in Mother Nature comes in twos, either too much or too little.”

Man should manage nature, he said. “It just blows my mind that people would allow wildlife to suddenly run amok. It’s like raccoons; there are more raccoons in North America than there were at the turn of the century because nobody’s hunting them,” Anderson said. “Human beings are managed very well, so why shouldn’t we do the same for wildlife.”

Brdnar, in reply to questions from The Community Press, explained in an e-mail that it is still “early in the planning stages for this project. However, we do know that the cost will be less than in previous years because our goal would be protection of specific treed habitat areas, rather than all treed areas of the islands as was done in the past. For this reason, any necessary culling would likely be on a smaller scale than in the past, and the need to cull would be determined each year based on monitoring results from previous years.”

The original management plan was for four years and was extended for another year. The one currently being developed can continue year after year for 10 years “once full public consultation has been completed.”

Initial comments regarding the project can be sent to Corina Brdar, Zone Ecologist, Ontario Parks, Southeast Zone, 51 Heakes Lane, Kingston, Ontario K7M 9B1 or by e-mail to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Cormorant cull in Point Pelee National Park - Spring 2008

Point Pelee National Park (PPNP) conducted an abbreviated cull of Double-crested cormorants starting on April 30th and finishing on May 5th. The cull consisted of two half day shoots and one full day shoot resulting in the death of 211 birds.  The number of culled cormorants is quite low due to the fact that PPNP had to follow a strict humane protocol while killing the birds.  Cormorant Defenders International representatives observed the cull from boats positioned next to Middle Island and from a land-based station on Pelee Island. Additional information will about the cull will be posted soon.  Parks Canada still intends to kill thousands of cormorants over the next 5 years as part of their "conservation plan" for the Carolinian ecosystem found there.  The cormorant colony on Middle Island, like every other bird colony in the world, is causing localized changes to vegetation around their nest sites.  The Double-crested Cormorant is a native species which is considered part of the Carolinian ecosystem and as such, should be left to nest peacefully on the island regardless of the size of the colony.  While Parks Canada suggests that culling is necessary to protect the “ecological integrity” of the island, this cruel and ineffective management strategy will in fact interfere with natural processes. 

Please visit www.cormorantdefenders.ca to find out what you can do to help!

 

The Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) is a large greenish-black waterbird with a slender, hook-tipped bill; orange facial skin and all four toes webbed together. The adults have two short tufts of feathers behind their eyes for a brief period during the breeding season, hence the name: double-crested. It is one of six species of cormorants found in North America.


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Since their feathers are not waterproof, the Double-crested
cormorant will look for a place to perch after diving, to dry its
feathers in the wind.

Native to North America, its breeding range extends from Alaska to the West Indies. It can breed in freshwater inland lakes and along the sea coast.


A colonial bird

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Photo: Peaceful Parks Coalition

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Photo: Jim Richards

Cormorants choose to colonize islands close to shore, and headlands wherever there is an abundant food supply. In the Great Lakes watershed, Lake Ontario and Lake Huron provide the most habitat options for these birds. Cormorants receive a lot of negative attention because they are highly visible; nest in large colonies and feed close to the shoreline. Also there is concern that they eat too much fish and damage trees.


An environmental messenger

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Images like this one, of a cormorant with a
deformed bill, helped to raise awareness of the
effects of DDT (Image: Melanie Griffin)

Following its widespread use after World War II, DDT and similar pesticides virtually wiped out the cormorant population. By the early 1970s the population had declined significantly. A ban on DDT, a decline in phosphorous and persistent toxic chemicals and the presence of non-native Alewives, Round Gobies and Rainbow Smelt all contributed to the cormorant's successful recovery. Its presence signifies large populations of these and other fish species.


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Cormorants are victims of an enormous misinformation campaign

Many people don't understand the ecological role of these colonial birds and the natural processes that occur when they are present.

Myth: Cormorants consume large quantities of desirable game fish.

Fact: The majority of the cormorant's diet is invasive species such as Alewives and Round Gobies, which are destructive to the ecosystem, non-commercial species such as sticklebacks and extremely abundant species such as Yellow Perch.

Myth: Cormorants are a major contributor to the declining fish populations in the Great Lakes.

Fact: Surveys of stomach contents indicate the birds consume approximately 0.5% of the fish in Lake Ontario, which is insignificant when compared to the 13% consumed by predatory game fish.

A real threat to fish populations in the Great Lakes is overfishing but it is politically simpler for wildlife managers to target cormorants.

The best way to restore fish populations is to prevent overfishing and high volumes of bycatch, stop the spread of invasive species, restrict shoreline development, agricultural runoff and the leaching of contaminants and stop contributors to acid rain and global warming.


Presqu'ile - a bird watcher's paradise

Home to the largest most diverse bird colonies in the Great Lakes, Presqu'ile Provincial Park is a mecca for bird watchers. The Park is an important shorebird staging area and is recognized internationally as an Important Bird Area.

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Shore of High Bluff Island in Presqu'ile Provincial Park

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Photos: Jim Richards



Culling cormorants in a bird sanctuary

From 2004 - 2006, the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) killed over 10,000 cormorants on High Bluff and Gull Islands in Presqu'ile Provincial Park in Brighton. This was deemed necessary to protect trees and other bird species. When tonnes of dead cormorants were dumped using all-terrain vehicles on the very island the MNR was claiming to protect, it was evident their objective was not about protecting the ecology of the area.


Myth: Cormorants threaten bird diversity because they are aggressive competitors for nest sites and fish.

Fact: The population of Black-crowned Night-Herons and Great Blue Herons increased in Presqu'ile Provincial Park after cormorants colonized the park's islands.


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Cormorants are monogamous. Both parents will incubate the
eggs and take care of the chicks.
Photo: Jim Richards


Tree damage

Cormorants build large, shallow nests in trees and on the ground. They may gradually kill the trees they nest in through the deposition of their guano and by breaking branches for use in their nests. The MNR argued that a cull was necessary to protect the trees so that other birds like Great Blue Herons could nest in them. Great Blue Herons also destroy the trees they nest in, as do the Great Egrets and Black-crowned Night-Herons in Presqu'ile Provincial Park.

Despite the damage these birds cause, the trees can continue to support them for long periods of time. The same nests may be used for at least four years. A real threat to bird diversity is the number of trees that humans are destroying - not cormorants.


Barometer for ecosystem health

The health of the Great Lakes has dramatically improved since the '70s and the cormorant is a good indication of this. Levels of phosphorus and persistent toxic chemicals have declined significantly. Cormorants indicate an abundant supply of fish.

Cormorants play an important role in controlling invasive species such as Alewife and Round Gobies. Rather than being valued for their ecological service, cormorants have been made into a convenient for the degradation of Ontario's fish population.


Nature's way of keeping populations in check

Ontario's cormorant population will not increase forever though the stocking of invasive species may have enhanced the carrying capacity of the Great Lakes for these birds. According to Environment Canada, the cormorant population will eventually outstrip its food supply, outgrow its habitat or will be reduced by disease or predation. Populations are already decreasing in some parts of Ontario.


Culls are expensive band-aid solutions to a human-induced problem

Culls are expensive and need to be continued in the long term to achieve the goal of reducing the cormorant population. They are a stop gap 'solution' unless continued indefinitely. A cull does not reduce the local area's desirability to cormorants, nor its carrying capacity. Other fish-eating birds will replace the culled individuals. Barring massive slaughter, the rate of cormorant population growth will actually accelerate in response to lethal control.

Province-wide efforts to eradicate cormorants are a waste of limited financial resources to control what is a natural ecological process.


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Coyotes, foxes, raccoons and other birds will prey on
cormorant eggs and chicks. Photo: Jim Richards



LINKS

Environment Canada's Wildspace

Killer flap on Leslie Spit
BY Tim Tiner NOW Magazine- March 24th 2005

Cornell University's All About Birds



Visit the Cormorant Defenders International website for more information:
www.cormorantdefenders.ca