Cormorant

Delight, then sorrow
aboard the cormorant
fishing boat.

Basho

I was amazed years ago when I watched a documentary showing Chinese fishermen using cormorants to catch fish. I wondered how anyone could teach a bird to fish for them. Two years ago while eating at a restaurant at the beach I saw a large bird standing atop an old pier pole stretching its wings. I asked those at the table if that was a cormorant. They didn’t know; nor did our waiter. It wasn’t until last year that I finally determined that it was indeed a cormorant, and that they are actually quite common around here. So common that many people viewed them as pests.

It’s probably not surprising, then, that one of my favorite chapters in Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds was one on cormorants because it presented many facts I didn’t know. It corrected some myths I’d learned from others. Most of all, it came much closer to my own view of these birds than most peoples’ views.

When I first started photographing cormorants last year and did an online search I was shocked by the disparaging comments I found. I couldn’t reconcile these attitudes with my own views of these fascinating birds.

Haupt explains that she started studying cormorants because they were local birds and relatively easy to find. She started her study by researching the birds, looking for inspiration:

At the end of it I was inspired, but not at all in the manner I had imagined. As it turned out, no one had anything particularly nice to say about the Double-crested Cormorant.

Instead of being put off by what she read, the opposite happens:

So that was it. My every shred of human sympathy was aroused. No one loved the cormorant. Surely these insensitive, unthinking observers (a group of which I had, until this moment, been a core member) were missing something. I would find out what.

She begins by debunking some common misconceptions, one that I was taught by my favorite bird expert:

This supposed lack of cormorant oil glands was presented somewhat derisively by the instructor of my long-ago ornithology class. Here was a water bird that couldn't waterproof its wings. The implication was that the cormorant was too primitive a bird, not sufficiently evolved to display the latest in proper avian adaptation. This was all in line with its prehistoric, reptilian appearance.

Despite the prejudice towards the cormorants primitive appearance, it turns out that wettable feathers are a complex adaptation:

So yes, many cormorants hold their wings out to dry, probably to ready their wings for flight, and possibly for thermoregulatory purposes as well. But the fact that cormorants have wettable feathers is not an example of their primitive nature. It is, rather, a complex adaptation to a diving, fishing life, a life that the cormorant has slipped in to with an overt, stylish perfection. And while it is the sort of perfection that may be radically misunderstood, it is not the sort that goes unnoticed.

One must wonder why people are so fond of penguins, which look every bit as different as cormorants, but despise cormorants. After all, both seem to have adapted to their need to spend long periods of time under water.

Haupt points out that part of the hatred probably stems from the fact that humans and cormorants compete for food:

In spite of this long and uniquely harmonious fishing partnership with birds in China, cormorants today are persistently vilified in the United States by people who catch fish commercially or for sport. While the Double-crested Cormorant is an ancient bird with a unique and quirky natural history and secrets to tell, much of the current research has focused on the human-cormorant conflict rather than topics of purely ornithological interest.

In many ways this animosity reflects the same kind of simplistic animosity that fishermen hold for sea lions and otters:

The conflict has many guises, but here in the Northwest it involves the perception that cormorants eat a disproportionate number of salmonid hatchery smolt in coastal estuaries and bays, contributing to dwindling numbers of various species' runs. Sport and commercial fishermen press wildlife and other government officials for permits to allow harassment or outright killing of cormorants to decrease the perceived impact of the birds, and to reserve consumption of the fish for human purposes.

Of course, such arguments don’t explain why it is that salmon were abundant in the past when these animals were much more numerous until they were nearly hunted into extinction for their furs. Only someone in a state of denial can believe that it isn’t man’s total disregard for the environment that has decimate the salmon runs. To blame indigenous animals for the decline is merely to perpetuate our own ignorance of our effect upon the environment. One more example of man’s ability to scapegoat rather than facing up to personal responsibility.

While I’d already discovered some of these prejudices, I didn’t have the historical background to recognize how deelply prejudice against the cormorant runs:

Writing Paradise Lost in 1667, that John Milton had likely never viewed a cormorant colony, though he may have seen individual birds perched in trees. Still, we have this from his imagined travels of Satan: Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life / The middle tree and highest there that grew /Sat like a Cormorant . . . . The depth of the human response to the bird suggests a source beneath the surface of rationality. Is it the neck that, at certain angles, moves like a snake? The large darkness of the bird, like a shadow, that some unfamiliar part of us cannot help but distrust? It seems that the bird's simple color may, in part, invoke our suspicion. Crows and ravens, other large, black birds, often invite this same response. The name cormorant combines the Latin corm, crow, with marinus, of the sea.

Perhaps it’s merely my own bias towards ravens and crows that made it impossible to suspect such motives. Of course I knew Poe’s “The Raven? but I never made this connection, though when I first caught sight of a cormorant I wondered if it might not have some connection to the Loch Ness monster since it rides so low in the water that all you usually can see is its head and neck sticking up. While I’d like to believe that such prejudice is unlikely, I suspect that Haupt is right.

I found myself recommending this book to several people, particularly to those who worked at Nisqually. While it probably helps if you live in Washington and you like birds, I don’t think either of those are really necessary to appreciate this book. It’s rare that it’s this much fun learning new facts and ideas.

7 thoughts on “Cormorant

  1. I love Basho. Which work is that poem from? The first time I ran across a reference to the cormorant was in a Richard Brautigan poem:

    “The Castle of the Cormorants”*
    Hamlet with
    a cormorant
    under his arm
    married Ophelia.
    She was still
    wet from drowning.
    She looked like
    a white flower
    that had been
    left in the
    rain too long.
    I love you,
    said Ophelia,
    and I love
    that dark
    bird you
    hold in
    your arms.

    Big Sur
    February 1958
    —————–
    I love the way cormorant sounds, like a dark, powerful spirit of some sort. I think I want to know more about them now.

  2. I found this Basho poem in a collection by Sam Hamill called The Sound of Water, but I’m not sure where it came from orignally, Theresa.

  3. The cormorant (it’s called water turkey in south Louisiana) is also the peyote bird.
    “It is used in many different ways and designs as the messenger bird who flies in the interior of the tepee, to whom prayers may be trusted, and it is the only one who can carry the message to the heart of the unknown mysteries. He also represents the Sun in other designs, as well as the great waterbird. The idea is also that most of us have the desire of creative expression. The outstretched wings mean this – the flight into the unknown. The outstretched neck is important. The bird is reaching and swaying.”
    from The Peyote Ritual by Monroe Tsa Toke

  4. I loved this entry on the cormorant. I’ve always been drawn to them for some reason, perhaps the same reason that I love crows and ravens. It was great to see them in a new light, and I love the Brautigan poem too, that one of your commenters left.

What do you think?