As I type this, there is one more day of killing to go this season. Who is being killed, and where, is beyond shocking. Who is being killed are native birds as they tend to their freshly laid eggs. Where is even more bizarre: they are being killed in a national park.
And why? Because unlike what you might think, even in spite of what their proposed mandate claims, Parks Canada, who “manages” Canada’s national parks system, does not want the parks to be natural, as nature would have them to be.
It gets worse. Yes, it’s well known that our national parks are overrun with tourists and the infrastructure and workers needed to serve them, from roads to stores to camp grounds, boat ramps, hotels, restaurants – the list goes on and on.
But this killing takes place on an uninhabited island, where tourists are not even allowed to go, and the only sounds are those made by birds, the wind, the waves, and guns.
And why are tourists not allowed to go there? Because they’ll disturb the birds.
The ones visiting there during the spring migration, and the ones nesting there.
Confused? You should be. However, for a percentage of the population all will be made clear when I tell you that the species of native bird being shot while nesting is the double-crested cormorant. As was once true of pretty well all predatory and fish-eating species of bird, including some now generally (but not universally) loved and protected by Canadians, such as the great blue heron, the osprey and the common loon, cormorants are still hated. There is something about cormorants, as there once was about loons, that generates anger, fear and hatred…and gunfire, even from an agency that ought to know better.
Middle Island is the southernmost land that is still within Canada, just meters from the invisible line that separates us from the U.S. It was added to Point Pelee National Park in 2001. Strangely enough, in Pelee’s 1995 management plan, such natural processes as “shoreline erosion, recession and deposition” were recognized as natural. But not, it seems, bird excrement, or more specifically, cormorant excrement.
They argue that the cormorants are “hyperabundant”. In other words, the problem is not the cormorants, great blue herons, night-herons, egrets, gulls, geese and other birds that nest there, just the number of one of those species, the cormorant. The “right” number is the number that does not create enough excrement to kill some of the vegetation. Parks Canada believes that it knows what that mixture should be, at least as determined by cormorants.
The excreta is high in nutrition which, like any fertilizing agent in abundance, can kill off some trees and other vegetation. Islands naturally attract “colonial” nesting waterbirds, and by this method the soil is slowly nourished. We don’t know what Middle Island looked like prior to the 20th Century, but we do know that cormorants were pretty well eliminated from much of North America in the 17th and 18th century, by direct killing, and that as they were re-establishing themselves, they were killed off again through use of DDT, after World War II.
Nature is not static, and grudgingly Parks Canada has come to recognize not only shoreline erosion, but blow-downs, ice storms and even fires play essential roles as some of the natural means by which abrupt changes can occur in ecosystems. But cormorants are vehemently hated.
Make no mistake; the real reason cormorants are hated by most people is that cormorants eat fish. The research shows that the birds don’t significantly deplete species caught by professional and sport anglers, but facts have nothing to do with ingrained bias or simplistic views.
Parks Canada is too sophisticated to buy into that argument, knowing the science does not support it, but there can be no doubt that the birds can kill vegetation. And so thousands of nesting birds are killed each year by marksmen patrolling the island with rifles, disturbing all of the species there, including, this year, American white pelicans, a threatened species, several of which tried to rest on the island.
The vegetation is all common, although some species of plants are at the northern edge of their range and are rare on the Canadian side of that invisible line that runs a short distance offshore.
Nearby East Sister Island is roughly the same size, also uninhabited, also hosts a large colony of cormorants, and yet the trees and other vegetation remains.
None of that matters to Parks Canada. While there is nothing more natural than island nesting birds, like cormorants, nesting on an island, nature and what is natural is not what it’s all about. And so as Animal Alliance of Canada observers keep watch each year, the shooters shoot, slaughtering thousands of birds each nesting season, year after year, into perpetuity, in an insane manifestation of human hubris and ignorance, fighting nature while, remaking the world into a distorted version of what it would otherwise resemble, playing God and, killing, always killing.
Barry Kent MacKay
Director, Animal Alliance of Canada
Senior Program Associate, Born Free U.S.A.