The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah

Paintings Courtesy Barry Kent MacKay

Paintings Courtesy Barry Kent MacKay

First, I want to thank my friend Barry MacKay for the use of his wonderful cormorant paintings in this and the previous blog post, and for alerting us about the cormorant-kill crisis (through another list).

An avid birder, wildlife advocate and Canadian blogger for Born Free USA, Barry writes, “I don’t really understand the U.S. animal protection movement’s indifference to the mass slaughtering of cormorants that has been underway for so many years, while we are stopping it in Canada, but I strongly urge anyone who cares to read a book just published: “The Double-crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah, by Linda R. Wires, Yale University Press, 2014. It came a week or two ago and gives you all the arguments you
need to help protect these wonderful birds from myth-based fear and loathing by “sportsmen” who just like to kill (the birds are inedible).”

Book Review: The Double-Crested Cormorant

The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariahthe double-breasted cormorant cover

By Linda R. Wires

Illustrated by Barry Kent Mackay

Yale University Press, 2014


Conservation biologist Linda Wires, in an utterly remarkable new volume from Yale University Press, takes up the cause of the persecuted Phalacrocorax auritus, the double-crested cormorant, a sleek, black-plumed aquatic bird from a family thirty-five or forty species found on every continent on Earth (although the double-crested is found only in North America). “More than just an account of a maligned and persecuted animal,” Wires writes, “the cormorant’s story reflects a culture still deeply prejudiced against creatures that exist outside the boundaries of human understanding and acceptance.”

The persecution she’s alluding is a deeply-ingrained cultural thing that’s almost certainly rooted in simple commerce: for almost as long as humanity has cast its nets into bays, harbors, inlets, estuaries, rivers, wetlands, and even ponds, humanity has also labored under the conviction that it has a cutthroat competitor in the double-crested cormorants twocormorant. As a result, even though cormorants in ancient China and Japan were for centuries domesticated into allies by fishermen themselves, they’ve been extensively persecuted virtually everywhere else. Wires stresses throughout her book (which is an absorbing combination natural history monograph and passionate manifesto) that this persecution continues today, and she’s very insightful on the cultural roots of it all:

When observed in its conspicuous spread-winged pose, common to several cormorant species, the cormorant acquires another potent aspect. In this notably bat- or vulture-like posture, the cormorant stands still and upright with both wings held out wide from the sides of its body. In this stance, frequently taken up after fishing, birds typically orient themselves toward the sun or the wind, presumably to dry their feathers or regulate heat loss and gain; some researchers have suggested that wing spreading occurs to heat up the bird’s food and facilitate digestion. Whatever the exact reason, the mysterious stance has an eerie, evocative quality, conjuring up images of crucifixion and vampires, and has fueled impressions about the bird’s dark nature.

“At the heart of the cormorant’s story,” she elaborates, “is the extent to which its current treatment is (or is not) based on sound science, especially relative to its management for fisheries.” No study past or present has ever demonstrated that double-crested cormorants are true rivals to any kind of commercial fishing, and yet, largely as a result of blind prejudicial momentum, near-extinction policies persist even into the 21st century. Wires lays out in cormorants onedetail the wrong-headed U.S. federal policies – several of which are up for renewal in June of this year – that allow for the wholesale slaughters of cormorant populations under the guise of “culling.”

The calamity of this kind of policy is leant all the more weight The Double-Crested Cormorant by Wires’s skill at describing the natural history of these birds, which are awkward on land (Wires notes their particularly their ungainly habit of hooking their beaks onto rocks and branches in order to pull themselves lurchingly forward, a sight I’ve seen and laughed at myself) but beautifully graceful in their natural underwater environment. They hunt by sight (they have flat corneas, which help in achieving a condition unknown to life-long book-readers: emmetropia, perfect vision) except when the water is too dark or turbulent, in which case they hunt by means as yet unknown. They nest in all manner of locations, and they’re doting parents. They’re deep divers, and although they’ll eat virtually any kind of fish they can catch (including some only a little smaller than themselves), they seem to prefer just the kind of smaller ‘junk’ species that are of no interest to commercial fisherman in any case.

It’s a quietly stunning double performance: Wires is equally proficient as both the Roger Tory Peterson of the double-crested cormorant and its Rachel Carson. Her preservationist advocacy is unflinching, and her nature-writing is eloquent – and the whole book is enlivened by gorgeous illustrations by Barry Kent Mackay, who not only captures the cormorant in all its moods and actions but also offers accompanying pictures of many of the cormorant’s fellow estuarine birds, including an especially ominous drawing of a bald eagle, and a haunting illustration of a great heron.

The result of all this is an important work, a benchmark popular study of a bird species that needs enlightened help in order to survive. The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah ought to be for sale in the gift shops of every national park in the United States at the very least – and from the sound of Wires’s conclusions, several copies sent to Congress might help too.



Hope for a Humane and Environmentally Sane Future

The following is my review of a new book published by Earth Books

Often, over the years, I’ve thought about taking on the task of chronicling the ways in which humankind is destroying the Earth, and how we need to change to survive as a species. Now, equally sensing the dire need for such a book, long-time animal activist, Will Anderson, has risen to the challenge with his new book, This is Hope: Green Vegans and the New Human Ecology.

I have to admit, the title, This is Hope, sounded to me like it could be almost, well, overly-hopeful. But in fact the book takes a hard, realistic look at where we’re headed if we don’t make some major changes in our destructive ways, our eating habits and our view of non-human animals as commodities. For instance, Anderson doesn’t buy into the increasingly popular fallacy that hunting can somehow be sustainable in this rapidly growing human world. Not only does he take on hunting, and those groups who promote it, he employs the term “neo-predation” for the myriad of ways in which the modern world disrupts biodiversity—to the peril of all who share the Earth.

And the author does not fall prey to the politically correct notion that human overpopulation is an overstated myth. Instead we learn that as environmentally-conscious, green vegans who truly want to see a future for all life on the planet, addressing and reversing our overpopulation is a must.

If we are willing to embrace Will Anderson’s prescription for a “new human ecology,” there truly could be hope for the future. As Anderson puts it, “The new human ecology can be the transformation of human behavior all of Earth has waited for.” Some of the positive results he foresees from this transformation include:

• Vast landscapes subjected to grazing and growing food for livestock are released from animal agriculture.
• Some of that land will be banked and rotated with other croplands. Soil erosion and pollution are sharply reduced. Sustainably grown, organic food becomes more reliably available.
• Conceivably, fewer people on Earth and the efficiency of botanical agriculture will allow lower food prices and raise food availability.
• We will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions immediately by 18% to 51%.
• Other human pressures on ecosystems decrease and allow them to trend toward recovery.
• Vegan diets will create better human health. This should result in lower health care costs.
• We stop the intentional impregnation of billions of domesticated individuals from other species, the torment of their enslavement and denial of their innate needs, and their early, violent deaths.
• The science and implementation of wildlife and habitat management is transformed…control by the small minority of people who hunt, fish and trap is ended.
• Livestock fences will be removed. Wild herds of indigenous wildlife can reoccupy habitat and have room to migrate long distances. Ecosystem keystone species like black-tailed prairie dogs will not be cruelly persecuted on behalf of animal agriculture.
• There are no new ghost nets, those fishing nets that break away from vessels, drift with oceanic currents, and continue to trap fish, turtles, marine birds, and marine mammals.
• We stop bottom trawling that destroys sea bed marine ecosystems. Since vegan human ecology does not require fish, it ends the trashing of millions of tons of unwanted bycatch (non-targeted species), eliminates shark-finning that is decimating shark populations, stops the killing of octopi, and ends the drowning of dolphins and turtles.
• We finally create a moral code of behavior that is based upon biocentric innate value; it is more consistently applied to all individuals of all species and ecosystems.

Photograph ©Jim Robertson

Photograph ©Jim Robertson

New Review of Exposing the Big Game

Veg News, January-February, 2013 (Thanks, Claudine, for spotting this!):

A September 24, 2012 article in USA Today proclaimed “Hunting, Fishing Rebound in US.” Not so fast. Nature writer and wildlife photographer Jim Robertson would beg to differ, and does, in Exposing the Big Game.

Robertson—along with Sea Shepherd Captain Paul Watson, who penned Big Game’s foreword—puts forth a scathing critique of hunters, whose numbers are now the same as anti-hunting activists, about 5% of the population.

Big Game is a thin though powerful volume, a quick study into all that’s wrong with hunting and hunters. Robertson’s stunning black and white photos grace nearly every page and one would hope that he expand both text and (color) photography into a larger, more robust work. The material is here.


Author’s Note: As the purpose of Exposing the Big Game is to shed new light on the evils of sport hunting, incite outrage and spark a firm resolve to help counter these atrocities worldwide, I decided to go with the current paperback format to keep the purchase price down, in hopes of spreading the word for wildlife as far and wide as possible. My publisher has promised to print a full-color coffee table book, once sales of this edition reach 5,000 copies. We’ve still got a ways to go…


Book Review from Liberation BC

Book Review: Exposing the Big Game

Written by Becci on June 25th, 2012

It’s no surprise that I’m not a fan of hunting.  But I have a particular distaste for those hunters who attempt to portray themselves as stewards of the earth when they are responsible for so much ecological destruction and when almost every environmentally-friendly undertaking on their part has been deceptive, counter-productive, and motivated entirely by self-interest and a desire to have more animals to kill.  There are even hunters who speak of the remorse they experience when they are forced to slaughter an animal in the noble name of “wildlife management”, combined with the wonder and intimate connection they feel with all of nature as they blast away at it.

That’s why I was intrigued when I heard about Jim Robertson’s Exposing the Big Game: Living Targets of a Dying Sport.  Written with appropriately acerbic humour, the book presents lots and lots of detailed information to counter the myth of the hunter as an environmentalist, touching on the numerous species of animals that are entirely extinct thanks to hunting (the passenger pigeon, great auk, and Steller’s sea cow, to name just a few) and discussing in detail the many threatened and endangered species which struggle to hang on while hunters lobby–often successfully–to have them removed from government protection lists.

The book also reveals that it’s not only the target animals like elk, deer, and bison who suffer and die as a result of hunting.  Some are just collateral damage, like wolves, who despite being endangered in most of the United States continue to be killed in great numbers for the crime of “competing” with hunters for elk and deer.   Countless other animals are directly and indirectly harmed when the balance of nature is thrown off by hunting.  (For example: Robertson explains how the enthusiastic slaughter of prairie dogs continues despite the fact that nine different species of animals rely on the burrows of these once abundant rodents for denning.  Thanks to the combined efforts of hunters and poison-happy cattle ranchers, prairie dogs now inhabit only 1% of their former territory, and it shows: black-footed ferrets and swift foxes are nearly extinct.)

I feel like I should point out that this book is not an entirely depressing read, since it might seem that way in this review.  Clearly there is a great deal of useful information about hunting, and I would recommend it for that alone.  But interspersed with facts about hunting and mass slaughter are wonderful anecdotes and facts about the secret lives of these animals: the author has spent a lot of his life observing nature and it shows.  (He’s also vegan!)

Exposing the Big Game is also filled with Robertson’s own beautiful photographs of wildlife, a nice counter to the depressing and gruesome images that sometimes accompany books of this nature.  I appreciated the photos even more when I got to the final chapter, “A Few Words on Ethical Wildlife Photography”.  (As a birder, I am aware of how overzealous photographers can be almost as detrimental to the well-being of animals as a hunter.) All in all, it is an absolutely fantastic book and well worth a read.