By Barry Kent MacKay
Director, Animal Alliance of Canada
The Ontario government, under the leadership of Premier Doug Ford, has set the wildlife management clock back a century or so by proposing to eliminate (while denying that is the goal) a fascinating, native species of bird, the Double-crested Cormorant. The proposal is so egregious that Linda Wires has written, “I can honestly state that of all the many proposals for cormorant management that I have reviewed, this proposal from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is by far the most ill-conceived and irresponsible approach I have seen to date. It essentially misses all key criteria for a reasonable and rational approach to resolving conflicts with a native wildlife species.” Wires is a Conservation Biologist in Minneapolis who has studied waterbird colonies world wide as a Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota and a Project Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Integrated Waterbird Management and Monitoring Program. She’s published one book and co-authored numerous peer-reviewed technical papers on cormorants.
In short, she’s a world authority.
But this blog is not so much about the war on Double-crested Cormorants as it is about collateral damage to other species that we tend to like, admire, or know nothing about, also at risk from the government’s outrageous proposal.
Let’s start with pelicans.
Most folks who have vacationed in places like Florida, California, Mexico or the Caribbean, or many other warm tropical and subtropical vacation locales, have seen pelicans.
World wide there are seven closely related pelican species, all equipped with large pouches and strong appetites for fish. Two of those species are found in North America, the Brown Pelican, and the American White Pelican.
While the Brown Pelican has been known to occur in Ontario, it does so only rarely, and does not nest here. It is also the species you are most likely to see when visiting the southern U.S., noted for its habit of visiting fishing piers and beaches and being fairly tame around people, joining gulls in begging for fish. Fishermen often oblige, sharing their catch or throwing unused bait fish to the hungry pelicans. They are not hated, or seldom so, compared to cormorants. They often seem to appear in cartoon form or children’s literature and are fondly lionized in Dixon Lanier Merritt’s delightfully memorable limerick:
A wonderful bird is the Pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belly can.
He can hold in his beak
Enough food for a week!
I’ll be darned if I know how the hellican?
The other species, called the “American” White Pelican to distinguish it from the Great White Pelican of Europe, Asia and Africa, is actually a very Canadian species, nesting through large areas of the Canadian prairies, east as far as Lake Superior.
From now on we’ll just call it the “white pelican”, the name most often used colloquially in North America.
Besides being white, as the name indicates (but with a lot of black in the wing – the primary and secondary flight feathers being black; the huge beak, and webbed feet are orange) the white pelican tends to be more of a wilderness species than the Brown, nesting further north than any other pelican species, although in winter it visits coastlines, estuaries and large water impoundments near the coasts from California in the west and Florida in the east, south along both costs as far as southern Central America, mostly avoiding, however, the Caribbean islands where the Brown Pelican is so very common.
When I was young the white pelican was listed as “endangered” in Ontario, and I well remember how thrilled I was to see my first one, back in the 1970s, in the marsh at the foot of Duffin Creek, Ajax, east of Toronto.
Pelicans are as Ontario as maple leaves or Tim Horton’s (well, more so, actually, having been here longer)
Most Ontarians have no idea that pelicans are native to Ontario, which is understandable, given how rare they once were in the province. But conservation can work, and by protecting breeding colonies their numbers greatly expanded, with large colonies well established in northern Lake Superior. And yet most Ontarians not from that area (or who don’t boat in the region during the summer) still are not aware that pelicans are a native Ontario species.
That is, or was, appearing to be about to change. A few years ago we started to see them in the southern end of Lake Erie, not as migrants, but during the beginning of their nesting season, in late April and early May. And it was not just the odd stray bird, but small flocks of them. Some tried to nest on a very low, treeless island, but the nests were washed away by high water.
While the people who hate cormorants say they “damage” or “destroy” habitat, since their excrement is so rich in nutriments that, like too much fertilizer, it can kill vegetation (exacerbated by the excrement coating leaves and thus blocking photosynthesis, and by the birds pulling off smaller branches for nesting materials) in fact they are changing habitat. Cormorants and white pelicans nest together, but while cormorants can nest on the ground or in trees, the pelicans are entirely ground nesters. Thus the effects cormorants have on islands can be to the detriment of trees, but to the benefit of co-habiting colonial nesting birds, such as Common Terns, Caspian Terns, Ring-billed Gulls, Herring Gulls and, most particularly, white pelicans…all ground nesters (although the gulls may try to nest in shrubbery and brush, but nest most successfully and often on the ground).
My colleagues and I have witnessed groups of white pelicans showing a lot of interest in Middle Island, Lake Erie, where cormorants are successfully changing the habitat to the apparent horror of Parks Canada, who shoots the cormorants to protect trees and ground vegetation. That has kept the pelicans away.
You see Middle Island, a small, uninhabited island, is the southernmost land belonging to Canada. Were it to be moved south, just the distance of a football field or two, it would be in U.S. waters. But because it is so southern, it has plants that reach the northern end of their range in southern Ontario. Some are listed as being threatened to varying degrees even though they are common to the south. The designations are based on what side of the imaginary line through the water they are, that line being the Canadian-U.S. border. It’s thus a politically, not ecologically, motivated designation.
It’s easier to scapegoat cormorants than provide the necessary protection for the plants on the mainland, and it’s a bit of a cozy employment opportunity for a clutch of researchers who write papers on what the effects of cormorant culling is on various plant species. They have exclusive access to the island throughout the long breeding season of the cormorants and other species. Sadly, numbers of other species, such as the Great Blue Heron and Great Egret, are also going down, harassed by Parks Canada “protecting” what is, ironically, called a bird sanctuary. Yes…we’re not the most rational of species.
So, on an island that is a designated bird sanctuary thousands of native birds are shot off their nest while a native recovering species, the white pelican, is prevented from expanding its range at least on to Middle Island.
But my fear for the pelican’s fate goes much further than whether or not various government agencies simply interfere with its range expansion.
What if it’s next on Premier Doug Ford’s hit list?
Think about it. If the white pelican continues to increase in numbers, and if the cormorant is eliminated (and the proposed legislation will to a large degree do exactly that), leaving a niche for the pelican to enter, why not kill off pelicans? Each pelican eats a lot more fish than does each cormorant. While pelicans don’t kill trees they certainly prevent tree growth. Pelican colonies are as odoriferous as cormorant colonies. In short, virtually all the complaints made against cormorants could soon be made against white pelicans.
Cormorants are often vilified for their habit of forming flocks on the water that “herd” fish into shallows or bays where they can be consumed. Pelicans do the exact same thing, only more so, and remembering that a pelican weighs from five to over eight kilograms while a cormorant weighs, at the most, not much more than two kilograms, have a look at this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XbFyStmUo0.
How long before fishermen, led by the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH), are yelling to have the pelican’s protected status removed so that it, too, can be “hunted”?
But long ere that happening I fear that even at present numbers, nesting in the Lake Superior region and so far not succeeding in expanding their range, white pelicans will be harassed, either deliberately or unintentionally, by cormorant haters.
You see white pelicans and cormorants both nest in the same colonies! That is what waterbird colonies are, groupings of various species, both competing with and supportive of each other. Few colonially-nesting bird species nest entirely by themselves, and cormorants attract other species. It’s normal to see admixtures of gulls, terns, herons, pelicans, cormorants and other species, in various combinations.
But pelicans are very vulnerable to human disturbance. And so my fear is that in regions where laws designed to protect the pelicans can’t be enforced, neither can be the newly proposed legislation that will redefine what is meant by “gamebird” to allow the mass, wasteful killing of cormorants. There is a very real possibility that both of these magnificent native bird species will again have to be placed on the endangered list.
I might not have thought so a year or more ago, but as the international plight of wildlife worsens, and as we lose increasing numbers of species, we are also seeing elected to high office “populists” for whom mere facts don’t matter, who consider science-based knowledge to be of no worth. It’s what we “feel” that counts, what, in the absence of actual knowledge, they want to believe, that drives policy, and facts be damned.