What on earth are they [Parks Canada] doing? Why Middle Island? What’s on this island that they are trying to protect? These are questions that we have been asked on our Animal Alliance of Canada facebook page when we posted about the senseless killing of native water birds by Parks Canada shooters.
Migratory native water birds travel north each spring to lay and incubate their eggs, then nurture their young. They have done this for millennia and the natural balance between flora and fauna has worked itself out without human interference.
Middle Island is a small island in Lake Erie that has become a vibrant nursery for migratory birds, including Great Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night Herons, Egrets, and even a recent addition, American White Pelicans. And, the island is also alive with a species that is rebounding, Double-crested Cormorants.
Cormorants have been hated for decades. Once nearly wiped out by persecution and pesticide poisoning, they are rebounding, a sign of hope for all of us who value all inhabitants of the natural world. But for years now, this critical nesting season is violated by shooters from Parks Canada who enter the island to blast Double-crested Cormorant parents off their nests as they incubate their eggs. By doing so, Parks Canada interferes with every other species of migratory bird, and turns a nursery into a killing field. And, Parks Canada uses our Canadian tax dollars to fund their killing.
This killing is going on right now and is likely to continue until mid-May. Animal Alliance staff is monitoring the killing from a boat stationed near the island. Working with Zoocheck, another Canadian animal protection group, we have done this work for several years.
Barry Kent MacKay, naturalist and a Director of Animal Alliance of Canada, answers questions about the ongoing persecution of these cormorants. His blog below addresses the critical disagreement about leaving natural processes to work themselves out, as opposed to lethal interference from humans attempting to establish a vision of nature that suits their own preference.
Middle Island was acquired in 2001 by Parks Canada to become part of Point Pelee National Park. The dichotomy of opinion about human interference derives from different interpretations of the Park’s mandate. Put simply both “sides” agree that the park’s ecological integrity should be protected and maintained and that a natural ecological trajectory should be allowed to unfold, and that part of the Park’s function is surely to protect rare species.
To the Park staff that means keeping the island in a steady, unchanging state, so that the plants and animals that were on it at some specific point in time (presumably when it joined the Park) should always stay there and in relatively unchanging numbers. The habits of the cormorant, in their view, may put some plants on the island at risk that “should” be there and are rare locally, although none are really endangered.
It should perhaps also be remembered that cormorants (like wolves, coyotes, crows, seals, sharks and other predatory or common scavenging animals – the list in earlier times was much larger and used to include hawks, owls, loons and anything else thought to “rob” people of “their” game and fish or crops) – often generate a kind of unreasoning, visceral hatred among people. They have been seen as competing with humans for fish, an argument that still holds sway among less educated people, and in too much of the U.S. Fortunately, here in Canada, science seems to have more influence over provincial and government wildlife management policy and the science is listened to. Concerns that cormorants eat all the fish that would otherwise go into sporting creels and commercial nets has been disproven and is not used. But there is still the fact that they kill vegetation, by stripping branches off trees, by covering foliage with excrement that blocks photosynthesis, and by adding, through their droppings, too high an initial load of nitrogen and other nutriments into the soil, thereby killing at least some plant species. Of course, they’ve literally been doing this for tens of millions of years and on newly emerged islands or newly formed ones, we know that bird excrement is often the source of nourishment that, in time, allows plants to flourish. But people tend to think in very short time spans. What they see is the trees they once had, now gone.
While to me a cormorant colony is an exciting and dynamic environment to witness, to others the birds are ugly. And it does not help that the birds were twice wiped out, so instead of being seen as a native species restoring conditions that are natural, they are seen as usurpers, somehow less “natural” than the trees that grow in their absence. For a time the government classified them as “invasive”, which, of course, they are not; they are a native species that belongs here. Some people think even a subconscious bias works against them, just as it does against people of colour, pointing out that even as late as the 1950s they were called “n***** ducks” or “n***** geese” in some parts of the south-eastern U.S. Most of us live in relative isolation from nature and the sights and sounds of large numbers of animals can be disturbing, and seem wrong in some basic way.
Our view is that the cormorants are no less a part of the ecosystem than the plants, and unlike the plants, which grow on the mainland, the cormorants have specific needs for nesting sites some islands fulfill. And we know that all ecosystems are naturally in states of flux, dynamic, and not static and unchanging, like a museum diorama.
Furthermore the plants that are rare in Ontario are so for two reasons: 1) they reach their northern limits in southern Ontario (thus “peter out” in our province…every species has an edge to its range); and, 2) we have failed to protect them on the mainland. Middle Island is literally only a few meters from the U.S. border within Lake Erie. Most plants that are involved are common, in some cases abundant, in the U.S., and if the island could be dragged a few football field distances in the right direction, they’d not be considered threatened species. They are on the wrong side of a border that was drawn by humans, a political, not an ecological, border, thus it is politics, not science, that drives the cull.
We are pretty sure from the language used that there is an assumption that cormorants never nested on Middle Island prior to when they started doing so quite recently, but we think that is absurd. There are records of them having nested very nearby in Sandusky Bay, Ohio, in the late 1800s and we think the problem is that they were wiped out in the 18th and, especially, the 19th century by fisherman and plume and egg collectors (such activity having been recorded a short distance to the south, in Ohio) before knowledge of such colonies became recorded by scientists and naturalists.
Other species that are there now didn’t nest there back when the island was finally first visited by an ornithologist qualified to identify the bird species he encountered. For example, he found Common Terns nesting there, they don’t now, and they require open areas, suggesting the “forest” there now might then have been much less, or even absent.
By the 20th century the island was inhabited by people, and even had an airstrip and hotel at one point, so has undergone enormous changes with plants wiped out or added by human activity in the early decades of the 20th century.
Cormorants started to re-establish themselves in the lower Great Lakes early in the 20th century (although they were pushed back after World War II because of use of DDT, which pretty well wiped them out yet again) but there is no reason to think they were not there before, as nesting species in pre-Colonial times, and there is reason based on material written at the time, to think that, in fact, they were present.
The introduction of a plethora of non-native fish species that are of a size of particular benefit to the cormorants (especially alewives, but also sticklebacks and rainbow smelt, and now, recently, round gobies) probably means that there are more cormorants now than previously, but there is simply no way at all to know if that is true. There have been significant reductions, even extinctions, of native fishes in Lake Erie, and the lake has been subjected to enormous forces of degradation from human causes.
But no one disputes that when Europeans first started accurately recording bird species and where they were found in the “New World” that the cormorants nested from Newfoundland and Labrador as far west as Alaska and the west coast, and from northern Manitoba as far south as Mexico. And yet, some how, we are supposed to believe that they skipped the largest body of freshwater in the world, right in the middle of their range!
We argue that the cormorants, and the pelicans, are island nesters that should be allowed to freely nest on islands. Nearby islands with similar amounts of trees and plants and no culling (East Sister Island, owned by the province who have indicated a desire to cull, but lack the financial resources) also have colonies of cormorants of similar size, and yet have not lost their plant life. But even were that to happen, that is the natural way islands are, that are inhabited by cormorants. What Parks Canada is trying to preserve, like a fly in amber, is a condition that they have arbitrarily decided is the “right” one.
Parks Canada could easily grow any of the plant species they are concerned about on the mainland. Sure, that is a contrived and artificial way to protect those plants in Ontario, but it is no more contrived and artificial than gunfire, and a lot less destructive of living things. We think we should let nature be nature, not a politically-driven false construct.
The one endangered species of animal or plant that really is on Middle Island is the Lake Erie Water snake. But it is thriving now that there are round gobies for them to eat. Unlike other bird species whose breeding colonies Parks Canada seems not to mind, such as herons and gulls, cormorants virtually never eat snakes. In fact, they don’t seem to do anything that would or could harm the snakes.
And finally, regarding the question: “ why this island and not the others?” (which is a good one), could also mean, in effect, why do the birds choose THIS island…in fact two researchers, Francine Cuthbert and Linda Wires, have found that the majority of islands that could be nested on by cormorants in the Great Lakes, over 90 percent, are not used by them.
There has to be a suite of appropriate conditions, including isolation from humans and predators and fish in waters close enough that the birds can feed themselves and their young easily enough to balance the energy required to do so.
This is a concept a lot of people have trouble understanding, but remember, these birds have to spend a considerable amount of their time-budget out of the water, as their plumage is not waterproof and they would otherwise drown, and that it takes energy both to fly from their nests with their eggs and then their young, to where they find fish, and to push themselves through the water column in active pursuit of fish. Cormorants must dive and propel themselves underwater to catch fish, a considerable exertion.
One parent always attends the eggs and the young (until they reach a size where they are no longer vulnerable), limiting fish catching to one parent at a time. Thus the energy spent must be balanced by the energy acquired from prey making allowance for the need to dry their plumage and attend to nest building and parenting duties. If they have to fly too far to find fish they use more energy than they gain, and they reach points of diminishing returns. They can’t choose to eat something else, and so they are limited in where they can nest. It is natural for them to nest on lake islands…that is where you find cormorants. The trees and shrubs and ground plants that concern Parks Canada can grow in many other areas (if we have the will to protect them…it seems we don’t…it’s easier just to shoot cormorants).
And oddly enough, Parks Canada has come around to recognizing that fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. Fire can also kill off vegetation, but when asked if they would supress a naturally occurring fire on Middle Island they said no…that they get…that fires are part of the dynamic cycle of life and death that characterizes “ecological integrity”. But, in their minds cormorants, native birds, are not part of that dynamic cycle.
How You Can Help
You can help protect these native birds who have faced persecution by humans several times before.
Animal Alliance of Canada needs your financial support to fund our travel to a community near Middle Island where we rent a boat and hire a guide to anchor off Middle Island when Parks Canada shooters are killing the birds.
What do we accomplish by monitoring the killing?
First, we believe that by witnessing the actions of Parks Canada that we ensure that the shooting is done with accuracy to provide the quickest death.
When shooters working with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, (OMNR) conducted a cull at Presqu’ile Provincial Park the cull was conducted in an indefensibly cruel way. Birds were left injured on the beach and were seen struggling. Because an injured cormorant cannot dive successfully to find fish, an injured bird will die from starvation as well as from the bullet wounds. It is indefensible that Ministry shooters left injured birds behind to die slowly.
Even though we have not yet been successful in stopping federally-funded Parks Canada staff from killing the birds, our presence with cameras helps ensure that the bloodbath that was the provincial cormorant slaughter will not happen again in the same inefficient and brutal way.
By monitoring the killing, we also compile information, such as the fact that other nesting water birds like Great Blue Herons, Egrets and more recently White American Pelicans are also being disturbed when the shooting takes place. Until we can stop the killing – which we continue to work for – we can at least bear witness to ensure that injured birds are not left behind to die slowly and painfully.
The video below shares footage from the Presqu’ile Provincial Park cull, and some of the myths about cormorants are addressed.
The video was prepared by Cormorants Defenders International, a coalition of environmental and animal rights groups, including Animal Alliance of Canada.