Cormorants: Members of the Peaceable Kingdom?

The most visible bird on any trip to Woodard Bay are the dark shapes of cormorants winging to and from their nests clustered on the far shore to the bay waters and pilings where dozens were gathered, crowding near the hauled up seals. It was difficult to know which species were mumbling and grumbling more about the state of the world, yet together they seemed rather content to soak up the sun emerging from the morning hangover of clouds. Almost the only other sound was the whirring of wings as cormorants went about their business on this late summer day.

I remembered the first time I had seen that these cormorants nested high up in trees along the shore of the bay. I had supposed they were ground nesters like many shorebirds but instead, like Great Blue Herons, as incongruous as that seemed for such large heavy birds, they built massive twiggy nests well off the ground in a kind of sky-high community in a grove of fir trees. I happily added that new information to my small store of bird lore. But on this trip, for the first time, I noticed that the nest trees were looking decidedly gray—dead or dying, in fact. My very knowledgeable companion confirmed that cormorants eventually killed their nest trees with the accumulation of droppings and from the damage inflicted by stripping branches for nest materials. The evidence of their burden, pardon the pun, was visibly adding up. Silently I wondered what would become of this beautiful shoreline forest if the cormorants moved from grove to grove leaving behind devastation. Would the process eventually reverse itself with the extra nutrients enriching the soil and regenerating the trees? I tried for the long view, but I had my doubts.

A rather dark photograph taken on a cloudy day but the dying trees with resident cormorants–the large black “dots”–are clearly outlined.

I’m far from alone with my feelings of ambivalence. Wanting to know more, I searched for information about the life and ways of cormorants. I recalled news stories about struggles down on the Columbia River where cormorants were gobbling up young salmon as they made their way around dams to reach the sea. Wildlife biologists were struggling to moderate the hungry birds’ “take” and balance one form of “Nature” with another, letting birds do what birds do and yet needing to protect endangered salmon from their seemingly voracious appetites. This is a very human-induced problem. We built the dams that decimate the salmon and, as it happens, we—as it were, represented by the Army Corps of Engineers—created an artificial island near the dam in the early 1980s called East Sand Island, now home to this thriving colony of cormorants and Caspian terns. The absolute security from predators on this island, with a guaranteed abundance of fish, have created the conditions for the largest gathering of cormorants on the continent. And now we are aghast and bringing in measures both annoying and lethal to deal with the flourishing cormorants.

Not so long ago, in 1972 the National Audubon Society listed cormorants as a species of special concern. They had been hunted relentlessly, not for meat or feathers but because they compete with us for fish, and were also vulnerable to the contamination of the environment with DDT. Since the banning of DDT and with protection of their nesting sites with the revision of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and other acts to include cormorants in their provisions, the species have bounced back with a remarkable resurgence of numbers. Is this success? It seems humans can’t make up their minds about cormorants. Anywhere humans feel they are competing with the diving birds for fish there is conflict; anywhere the nesting birds appear to dominate areas and compete with other beloved birds or destroy trees there is also conflict. And where there is conflict there are attempts to get rid of cormorants. Should we be picking favorites, privileging one species over another: herons and egrets over cormorants, trees over the birds who inhabit them, fish over birds who eat them, fishermen and fish farmers struggling to make a living over the birds who just want to live?

Is there room for everybody? The seals and cormorants were able to share the haul-out logs; can we find a way to live and let live, too? What would a true balance of nature look like? In this Anthropocene epoch we’ve gone too far down the road of management to just throw up our hands; we’ve got to engage in the difficult work of sorting out what is “natural” and what could do with a little help, or acceptance, or more study.

My thoughts on cormorants were informed by reading an essay by Richard J. King, “To Kill a Cormorant,” posted on the website Natural History at https://www.naturalhistorymag.com/features/19298/to-kill-a-cormorant

And the essay by Brian S. Dorr and David G. Fielder, “The rise of double-crested cormorants: Too Much of a Good Thing?” posted on the website of The Wildlife Society at https://wildlife.org/the-rise-of-double-crested-cormorants-too-much-of-a-good-thing/

Woodard Bay can be found just north of Olympia following these instructions:
From I-5 heading south, take Exit 109 (Martin Way Exit) towards Sleater-Kinney Road, and make a right onto Sleater-Kinney Rd NE. Travel approximately 4.5 Miles and continue as it turns into 56th Ave NE For 0.4 Miles. When you reach the “T”, turn right onto Shincke Rd NE and proceed one-half mile. Turn to the left and becomes Woodard Bay Rd NE. Cross the bridge over Woodard Bay and find a parking lot on your right.
Woodard Bay was designated a Natural Resources Conservation Area in 1987, one of the first in Washington state. A Discovery Pass is required to access the trails that lead to the bay. A wonderful gift to us all!

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