16 Spring 2014 ; cbf.org
Tom Pelton served as Senior
Writer and Investigative
Reporter for CBF until April 2014.
We thank him for his service
and wish him all the best.
Long a symbol of bad luck and evil in
Western literature and myth, cormorants
have been persecuted and slaughtered by
fishermen and governments, according to a
new book called The Devil’s Cormorant by
Richard J. King.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
has a policy of destroying cormorant eggs in some areas of the
Chesapeake Bay. The Humane
Society protests that this killing
of cormorants is inappropriate,
because cormorants are a native
“It is really interesting to see how
far back it goes, this sort of anti-cormorant feeling in literature and
art,” King said. “Milton famously
described Satan sitting like a cormorant on the tree of life.
Shakespeare uses cormorant
imagery four times in his plays.
And in Shakespeare’s time, being
‘cormorous’ meant being greedy
Much more recently, a sports fishing blog
described the birds as “gangly, gluttonous
rats with wings.” The article’s headline: “I
Despite this bad rap in Western culture,
cormorants are miraculous and wonderful
in their own way. They migrate thousands
of miles, swim deep beneath the water with
their webbed feet, and are trained as fish-catching pets in Japan and China.
Even more amazing is the species’ Phoenix-like resurrection. After being nearly wiped
out in the U.S., cormorants started multiplying in the 1970s after the federal government banned the pesticide DDT and
outlawed hunting cormorants in 1972.
Maryland was home to zero nesting cormorant pairs in the 1970s. But by 1990,
there were 55 couples reproducing here.
And today, there are about 4,000 nesting
pairs in the state, according to David
Brinker, a wildlife biologist with the
Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Thousands more are breeding in Virginia’s
part of the Chesapeake Bay.
“I view cormorants as a good sign,” Brinker
said. “Here’s a new species that adds to the
diversity of fish and wildlife populations.”
Double-crested cormorants have long
migrated through the Chesapeake Bay in
the spring and fall, as they flew from their
nesting grounds in New England to their
wintering areas in Florida and back again.
Since the 1970s, their nesting territory has
spread south from New England, as the bird
population has multiplied. But whether cormorants ever nested in the Chesapeake Bay
in the past is a matter of dispute.
One author, back in 1610, described cormorants in Virginia rivers “in such abundance
as are not in all the world to be equaled.”
Bryan D. Watts, Director of the Center for
Conservation Biology, said it is “absolutely
possible” that cormorants nested in the
Chesapeake Bay hundreds of years ago,
before being driven away by fishermen or
“Many water birds have expanded and contracted their ranges up and down the
Atlantic Coast in recent decades,” Watts
wrote in an e-mail. “So there is no reason to
believe that cormorants couldn’t have done
that several times in the past.”
There are some nuisance issues associated
with cormorants. The birds tend to nest in
such densities that their waste kills grasses
and trees on parts of the islands where they
breed. They eat about a pound of fish a day,
but not enough to impact overall fish populations or the fishing industry, scientists say.
Nevertheless, in 2013, the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service intentionally destroyed
about 3,200 cormorant eggs on Popular
Island in the Chesapeake Bay.
Peter McGowan, a wildlife biologist with
the federal agency, said he and his colleagues sprayed a portion of the
colony’s eggs with vegetable oil,
which suffocates the embryos. He
said wildlife managers worry the
booming cormorant population
would crowd out other, more
threatened birds. Common terns,
glossy ibises, and snowy egrets
are competing with the cormorants for nesting space,
“There are other species that are
(more threatened),” McGowan
said. “I wouldn’t say they have
preference, but they utilize habitats that are quickly being lost in
the Chesapeake Bay. And we
need to focus on trying to provide the nesting habitat for those
Stephanie Boyles Griffin, a director at The
Humane Society of the United States, said
the destruction of cormorant eggs is inappropriate—and an example of how the
birds are still being unfairly persecuted.
“The Humane Society of the United States
is strongly opposed to any lethal efforts to
control cormorants,” Griffin said. “They’re
a native bird. The reason that fishermen
and wildlife managers want to manage
them at all is because of land-use decisions that we as humans have made. We
have taken up residence in most of the
coastal areas of the Chesapeake Bay, and
this is all colonial nesting and shorebird
Development and rising sea levels are forcing birds to compete for a shrinking number of secluded waterfront nesting sites.
People are trying to pick the winners and
losers in this competition, and a misunderstood black bird is paying a fatal price.
Cormorants have been associated with evil in Western literature
because of their “gluttonous appetite.” But, they are miraculous in
their own way, and, in Asia, are beloved and trained as pets.