New York State
Ornithological Association

For the birders and birds of the Empire State

ConservationPosted 2/1/13
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A Few Thoughts on the Devil's Bird
Gerry Smith, NYSOA Conservation Committee
Published in the October 2012 issue of NY Birders

Please note the following are my opinions and may not represent the views of NYSOA or other members thereof.
Please also note that I have professional credentials as a colonial water bird biologist having worked with these
species for decades.

In the northern third of New York State and many other places, our native Double-crested Cormorant is held in contempt by much of the human race. Often this borders on near visceral hatred with myths and misunderstanding abounding. Comments regularly heard from the public include:

  • "They will destroy our fishery"
  • "They eat five pounds of fish a day"
  • "They are invasive and don't belong here"
  • "They eat only game fish"
  • "They destroy the land where they nest"
  • "Maybe they would be ok if they weren't so black and ugly"

This level of stupidity and prejudice makes it very difficult to hold a rational discussion on management of cormorant populations. Even normally fair parts of the media, such as NPR stations, are reluctant to allow those of us with alternate views access to present them. The fear and loathing of this bird amongst many sportsmen's groups and a large portion of the general public creates a climate of irrationality regarding cormorant management that permeates much of this region.

The general outcry from many people when Double-crested Cormorants are present in a given area results in generally uninformed remarks calling for "action" from politicians of all stripes. The pressure then is directed at the chronically understaffed New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to "do something" to alleviate the situation. Such pressure has existed for nearly two decades on Lake Ontario, Lake Champlain and Oneida Lake. Pressure is now developing in other areas such as Black Lake south of the St. Lawrence River. The results of political pressure, limited DEC resources and other management shortcomings are leading to questionable management and other problems.

I am not opposed to necessary management of this species based on good and relative current science. I am opposed to management responses based on trying to address public hysteria whereas educating the public that management may not be needed is much more appropriate. NYSDEC needs to do a better job of working with others to attempt to educate the public on the real ecology of this species. Current management concerns in particular include:

  • Cormorants are dominant over most other water birds nesting in our region. On Oneida Lake and The Niagara River where colonial water bird nesting sites are limited control is justified in order to provide sites for other species.
  • On Oneida Lake decades of well done fishery studies clearly point out the need for control because of particular aspects of the fishery. Also water bird nesting islands are very limited and control protects a significant population of nesting Common Tern.
  • On Lake Ontario, where major DEC scarce resources are being directed at control, the current situation is far less clear. The science justifying these efforts is over 10 years old and great ecological changes, primarily introduction of invasive aquatic organisms, have occurred. The current management plan and cormorant population targets were developed to protect smallmouth bass. This species and most water birds are now chowing down on the invasive round goby, thus previous diet parameters are not applicable. It is time to revisit the necessity for this entire program. In my opinion, this program is highly questionable and the resources being used could be better spent. Perhaps if Double-crested Cormorants are gobbling gobies populations rising would be good management. Perhaps a cormorant stocking program is needed?
  • On the St. Lawrence River more cormorants are nesting in the last decade than previously. This is likely in large part due to birds being displaced from Lake Ontario by control measures. Again, good site-based science is lacking, and applicability of killing adults on a substantial scale, as has occurred recently, is a highly questionable practice.
  • Similar activities with insufficient justification are occurring on Lake Champlain.
  • My sensibilities are particularly offended by the use by DEC of supposedly well trained volunteers at some sites to harass cormorant flocks by boat. This is a terrible idea, difficult to control and very poor management practice.

Unfortunately NYSDEC seems committed to use scarce department resources to continue the control program at current levels and to expand as needed. This entire program needs to be revisited and redesigned to meet only real needs not perceived problems. Control of any biological organism in the wild requires great commitment of limited resources and is only justifiable if carefully planned and frequently reviewed and adjusted on an ongoing basis. Substantial parts of the current efforts in this state do not meet that test, but instead smack of long discredited predator control designed to appease hysterical and ignorant citizens. The DEC operates this program under a US Fish and Wildlife permit issued by the Amherst Massachusetts office. In my opinion unless NYSDEC undertakes a complete review and updating of their management program USFWS should deny that permit.

The control of a native species puts one on a slippery slope that can result in professional biologists justifying bad management decisions. One need only look at so called management of wolves out west to find current examples. Many NY birds eat fish and NYSDEC has recently studied Common Merganser impacts on trout. Will we soon have calls for Common Merganser control? While I doubt that I urge all interested to write NYSDEC at the highest levels to insist on a reassessment of the current Double-crested Cormorant management plan.

NYSOA policies on cormorant management and bird population management can be found on the NYSOA Conservation page, FedConservation.

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