By Jim Poling Sr.
The big black bird controversy that got its modern start almost 400 years ago is raging again.
It was back in the 1660s that the English poet John Milton stoked the controversy in the epic poem Paradise Lost. In it, Milton portrays Satan breaking into the Garden of Eden and sitting high up on The Tree of Life “like a cormorant.”
A bit earlier, Shakespeare had used the word cormorant in four plays as a synonym for voracious.
Cormorants are homely water birds the size of a small goose. They have long snaky necks that help give them a gangly, creepy appearance. And, they are deep black, like the raven, which also has a controversial reputation.
Seen up close, cormorants actually display some good looks and colour – yellow-orange face and throat, sparkling aquamarine eyes and a bright blue mouth seen when their beaks are open.
However, they have no lovely song and no likeable movements. They don’t have good public relations because there is no cormorant version of Bambi to touch people’s hearts.
They are much disliked, not just because of their evil look, but because they eat fish and foul any territory they occupy. Their feces are highly acidic and kill plants in areas where they accumulate in numbers.
As a result, property owners and sports fishermen complain and campaign to get rid of them.
So, this fall the Ontario government will allow cormorants, which have been protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, to be hunted. Licensed hunters will be allowed to kill 15 cormorants a day between Sept. 15 and Dec. 31.
Fifty years ago, cormorants were approaching extinction in many parts of North America. The overuse of DDT and other powerful pesticides caused their eggs to thin, killing reproduction.
Pesticide controls and bans helped them, and other bird populations, to recover. Now there is an abundance of cormorants – some people say far too many.
Not everyone views these birds as ugly and evil pests. In many fishing villages throughout Asia they are considered the fishing equivalent of a hunting dog. In Yunnan Province, China they are tethered to boats and trained to catch fish for the local boatmen.
And back in 2002, the people of Skerries, Ireland, used town beautification funds to erect a bronze statue of a cormorant standing on a rock with its wings spread.
The Ontario cormorant hunt raises troubling questions. First, is it a hunt, or a cull – an easy way to reduce cormorant populations and public complaints?
Truly traditional hunting is about getting food to eat. It rests on the ethic that all living creatures are important, and their lives must be respected and taken only for food, clothing or another living thing’s survival.
Cormorants are not good food. Some coastal Indigenous people did eat them but found them very difficult to pluck and the meat tough and fishy tasting.
The Bible (Leviticus 11:17) warns that cormorants are a fowl that should not be eaten:
“And these are they which you shall hold in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination . . . . “
Some British apparently ignored that Biblical warning and ate roasted cormorants during the food shortages of the Second World War. Icelanders also are known to eat cormorants, as well as puffins and gulls. Neither nation is known for its food connoisseurship.
There is little expectation that cormorants shot by hunters in Ontario will be eaten. My concern is that they will be shot simply because they are there to be shot and they will be left to rot.
That’s not hunting. It’s killing for the sport of killing.
Humans consider themselves first and most important of the world’s creatures. Therefore, anything that bothers us or upsets our lifestyles needs to be altered or eliminated.
Cases can be made for culling in certain circumstances. For instance, a swamp area might need to be sprayed to eliminate biting mosquitoes that infect humans with malaria.
Maybe cormorants need to be culled. I don’t know because I don’t have all the facts.
But if experts who know the science and do the studies advise that cormorant populations be reduced, don’t call it what it isn’t.
It’s culling, not hunting.