[Welcome back to the CormoRANT. I know it’s been a while, but here’s another in my series of opinion pieces regarding birds, conservation, and probably politics!]
Humanity is a superstitious lot. Our ability to piece together scant information and form a pattern in our minds was probably instrumental in our evolutionary success. But in the modern world we have never fully shaken these ideas. Broken mirrors. Opening umbrellas indoors. Walking under a ladder. Knocking on wood. You know these, and probably countless others.
It’s no surprise that birds have also figured into human superstition for ages. For example, albatrosses are seagoing birds (sometimes called pelagic) that can spend months at a time in the air, only landing to breed, nest, or feed their young. Centuries ago, sailors saw the albatross as a good omen, and if it was killed, you were doomed to be lost at sea or worse.
In Samuel Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the story takes a truly supernatural turn, and the mariner’s life is only saved when he blesses all creatures after a harrowing ordeal, atoning for his killing of the bird.
It probably makes sense that the albatross was seen as bringing good luck. If one was flying behind a ship, it likely meant favorable weather. If it was a fishing boat, the birds were probably attracted to other birds that were feasting on the by-catch. This would associate the birds with good fishing.
On the other hand, consider the much-maligned cormorant.
The word “cormorant” loosely translates to “sea crow”. Large, mainly black birds, these master divers and fishing birds have a long history of superstition. They have been associated with oncoming storms and great evil. The root of distrust and hate for this birds has a more practical source: perceived competition. According to Dr. Tom Kazo, Ph.D. and Donna McVicar Kazo:
“The gluttonous behavior patterns of the cormorant, combined with its devilish appearance and almost supernatural fishing abilities, have for centuries caused superstitious fears and enmity in the hearts of fishermen.”
For years there has been an ongoing war between the cormorant and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Last year tens of thousands of Double Crested Cormorants were killed, and thousands of nests ruined, to cut the population down.
The problem, according to the Corps (and, more importantly, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) is that the birds were eating a huge number of young salmon and trout as they made their way downstream from hatcheries.
Never mind the fact that the reason for the massive decline in wild salmon and steelhead is due to the damming of western rivers, particularly in the Columbia River watershed. Responsible conservation will require that the hydroelectric system be reviewed and in some cases, certain dams be decommissioned. Non-lethal methods for dealing with the cormorants were not adequately considered.
Here are some links to articles dealing with last year’s cormorant slaughter. When or how often this type of “management” strategy gets used in the future depends on pubic input and sound science.
The irony of this is that the consideration and eventual decision to slaughter tens of thousands of birds lay with the nominally pro-environment/conservation Obama Administration. With the current anti-science, anti-conservation, and pro-development attitude of the current occupiers of the Executive Office, who knows what horrors await.
It is interesting that prior to the perceived problem with the cormorants, another opportunistic species was taking advantage of the artificially constructed concentration of young fish along the same stretch of river: the more socially accepted Royal Tern.
Terns are elegant birds; they are the more graceful and buoyant relatives of gulls. The terns were afforded the consideration of non-lethal methods, and plans were enacted that forced the birds to relocate and refocus their attention to smaller, less commercially valuable fish. I’m sure the cormorants are a “harder nut to crack” in this regard, but given the root cause of the problem (i.e., us) and the greater environmental stakes, we owe it to these birds, and all other species, to think and act compassionately and peacefully.