By Barry Kent MacKay, Director | September 8, 2020
“You might as well learn that a man who catches fish or shoots game has got to make it fit to eat before he sleeps. Otherwise it’s all a waste and a sin to take it if you can’t use it.” — Robert Ruark (1915 – 1965), American author, novelist, hunter.
“One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted…If one were to present the sportsman with the death of the animal as a gift he would refuse it. What he is after is having to win it, to conquer the surly brute through his own effort and skill with all the extras that this carries with it: the immersion in the countryside, the healthfulness of the exercise, the distraction from his job.” – Jose Ortega y Gasset (1882 – 1955) Spanish philosopher, politician, hunter.
A slob hunter is someone who callously kills wildlife for entertainment and ego-gratification, and revels in killing as many animals as the law allows (or more). These people tend to vote GOP and lack respect for nature in many other realms. To make themselves appear less than evil, they use cover stories about “population control,” “game management,” “conservation” and “harvesting.” Urban Dictionary.
Respect for Wildlife: Hunters have a deep respect for the animal they pursue. Their interest in wildlife extends beyond the field, and their concern for wildlife and the environment extends to nongame and endangered species. The responsible hunter is prepared, confident in their abilities, and aware of their limitations. They shoot only when a quick, clean kill is assured, and forgo the long-range or obscured shot that may wound an animal or be unsafe. They make every effort to avoid injuring game, and go to great lengths to retrieve a wounded animal. They are not wasteful. Hunters make full use of the animals they take and are aware that it is against the law to let game meat spoil. They measure the success of the day by the quality of the outdoor experience, not by the game taken. (OFAH https://www.ofah.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/ResponsibleHunting.pdf)
Hunter vs. Hunter
How often do we hear how much hunters “respect” wildlife, are dedicated conservationists, and knowledgeable about the natural world? We often hear they take no pleasure in killing, that act being insignificant compared to the joys of being out of doors, that killing is part of nature. We’re told that hunting is carefully regulated through the application of scientific principles in order to protect the “resource”. The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) solemnly states, “I give my pledge as a Canadian, to save and faithfully defend from waste, the natural resources of my country…” and as a “core value” the self-proclaimed “VOICE of anglers and hunters”, (their emphasis) will ensure “…the conservation of Ontario’s fish and wildlife, their habitats, and the ecosystems that support them…”
The nemesis to such righteousness is, we have always been told, the “slob hunter” who gives other hunters a bad name by hunting for the joy of killing, a joy that never applies to them, the ethical majority. I’ve known many hunters and to a man (more rarely a woman) they assure me they are “ethical hunters”, whose kindly administrations to wildlife, via bullet, shot, crossbow bolt or arrow, does a world of good for the animals and their environment.
Right. Well that myth has been shattered thanks to the Hon. John Yakabuski, Minister Natural Resources and Forestry for the province of Ontario, in bending to OFAH’s lobbying, and with Premier Doug Ford’s blessing in hopes that Ford government would garner votes from hunters who casually kill and waste wildlife. Lauren Tonelli, a resources management specialist with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH) describes the casual killing this way: “We really see this season, especially since it overlaps with waterfowl season, as a way for people who are already out waterfowl hunting to maybe remove a few cormorants while they’re out.” https://www.nationalobserver.com/2020/08/13/news/ontario-its-open-season-cormorants-hunt-based-science
Ontario has what is colloquially known as a “shit bird list” of six species, four native, two Eurasian – the common starling and the house sparrow – both present due to the deliberate release of them in North America in the 19thcentury.
Five of the six are black. They can be hunted by anyone with a small game license, but there is no season, no bag limit, no prohibition against wasting their meat. The cormorant, also black, was widely known as the “N—– goose” until the colloquialism became politically corrected to near (but not total) oblivion.
OFAH wanted the double-crested cormorant to be number 7 on the shit bird list. In its document titled, PRIORITIES FOR THE NEW GOVERNMENT Overabundance of Double-Crested Cormorants, the OFAH wanted “double-crested cormorants in the list of birds in Clause 5 (2) (a) of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act [shit bird list] to remove existing protections.” (https://www.ofah.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/OFAH-Priorities-for-New-Government_Public_Cormorants.pdf)
The request to remove protection for Ontario’s cormorants demonstrates OFAH’s contempt toward cormorants and exposes their lack of basic knowledge of ecology. While an ecosystem can be defined many ways, it invariably consists of the species of native animals and plants that are within it. A cormorant colony cannot destroy the ecosystem of which it is a part because it is the ecosystem. Ecosystems are not unchanging dioramas, they are dynamic assemblies of native species interacting with each other and the environment. Like all ecosystems, a colony of birds is interrelated with other ecosystems as part of a natural whole our species is so methodically changing and dismantling. So that which wipes out cormorants wipes out a native ecosystem.
Endless wholesale persecution of the six shit list species by every means we can dream up, and we’re good at dealing death, has not reduced their numbers or stopped them from whatever they do that people don’t like. Apart from having feathers they are not like cormorants at all. All six are songbirds, the native American crow, brown-headed cowbird, common grackle, red-winged blackbird, and those two “aliens” only in Ontario for 120 years (house sparrow) or 107 years (starling).
The cormorant belongs to a different, far more ancient and much smaller group of bird species (54 vs 4000) that includes gannets, anhingas and frigatebirds, with pelicans as distant relatives. The six songbirds not protected by the federal legislation that protects all the others, the Migratory Birds Convention Act, eat a broad range of foods widely distributed; cormorants are obligate eaters of fish of a certain size and large population densities found on islands and peninsulas in relatively few bodies of water.
Those six songbirds are all tolerant of people and human activity, highly adaptive and found in large numbers across the land, while the cormorants are easily killed or driven off from the very few places they can breed. Unlike the persecuted songbirds, cormorants nest in colonies, attracting other colonially nesting birds such as herons, egrets and pelicans, and are thus concentrated when nesting, making them highly vulnerable, while the songbirds tend to nest individually, or in shared habitats, but not colonially, not concentrated. And while the world’s population of double-crested cormorants is less than the human population of Toronto, each of the legally persecuted songbird species exist in the tens to hundreds of millions.
In short, whatever pleasure a hunter may feel in killing a sparrow or a red-winged blackbird, doing so does not prevent sparrows or blackbirds from continuing in large numbers, doing whatever they do that deserves the death penalty.
But cormorants are biologically and ecologically entirely different.
Adding the cormorant to the shit list would be an obvious violation of what both the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and OFAH claim as a core value: conservation and the protection of the environment.
Could there be another, less obvious way to wipe out Ontario’s cormorants?
Not within the law of the land, so it became necessary for Yakabuski and Ford to invent a way.
They did. By waving a magical legislative wand they turned the cormorant into a “game bird”. Voila, suddenly the cormorant became no different from a duck, grouse or goose.
Ah, but wait. We still have all the native waterfowl of Ontario. While several others came dangerously close to extinction before government wildlife management came into being, only one North American waterfowl species became extinct, the Labrador duck, last seen for sure in 1878. The rest are prevented from suffering the same fate by careful, science-based management to determine how many can be legally hunted while preserving the species. The principles that have guided “game” management, until Ford and Yakabuski came along, include: bag limits based on scientific principles, full utilisation, fair chase and firmly established population goals.
Forget all that.
“Game” birds are supposed to be eaten. That’s part of the myth, remember, that, it is a “sin” to kill “game” for no purpose and suddenly the cormorant was a game bird.
Cormorants don’t know they’re now supposed to be waterfowl, and after developing habits that begin when dinosaurs trod the land, they’re not about to change into ducks and geese, grouse or quail because of what OFAH or Yakabuski decide. And they continue to possess a rank taste that quickly eliminates anyone with taste buds from ever wanting to eat more than a first and last taste of one.
Since adding Ontario’s cormorants to the shit bird list was just too egregious even for Ford and Yakabuski, they came up with Plan B. If you had a small game license, the initial proposal went, you could kill 50 cormorants per day starting March 15, when the birds are first arriving back from their wintering grounds to start their family duties, until the end December, well after all but a very few stragglers have migrated. That meant birds would be killed through the spring and summer nesting season, leaving young untended to die of hunger or perhaps be baked alive by sun. That sort of thing happens to the six shit birds without, eliminating the species, although if you call it “hunting” you cannot also claim that hunting is anything other than a cruel activity, which, of course, it cannot help but be.
Cormorants are dedicated parents who form strong pair bonds with both mom and dad sharing chick-rearing duties, even to carrying water in their throats (they have miniature version of the pelican’s pouch) with which to cool off the babies. One or the other adult is always in attendance when the young are most dependent. Killing either parent equals killing the young, and what was initially proposed would allow slob hunters to roam through nesting colonies, blasting away, wiping out entire colonies (and incidentally chasing off such co-colonial species as herons, egrets and, where they occur, white pelicans). They sometimes do that anyway but at least they don’t do so legally.
Real conservationists, biologists, and cormorant experts all wrote in strong opposition to this absurd extermination plan. It got dialed back to the point that the season starts September 15, and the daily “bag limit” was reduced to 15 birds. There are more small game license holders in Ontario, 197,000, than there are cormorants, 143,000, according to the Ministry. If just a thousand of those hunters managed to kill their limit for just ten days, it would eliminate every breeding cormorant in Ontario.
That is not conservation.
How many is the “right” number has been determined for all other game birds, but not for Ontario’s cormorants. But I think slob hunters and cormorant haters everywhere know the answer, as does the provincial government: Zero.
There is, the argument goes, no need to regulate them as a game bird, because they aren’t, and yet they are not a shit bird either even if there is something about a red-winged blackbird or crow that bothers you. Ontario’s cormorants are, in short, a native species to be eliminated, and slob hunters are up to the challenge.
What Hunters are Saying about Ontario’s Cormorants
I’ll remove last names to avoid embarrassing the writers, but what follows are some comments from OFAH’s own Facebook site:
Gord understands the ruse, and says, “…We’re for the conservation initiative, it should just be labelled a cull. Every anti-hunter is already lining this up, and there are 100% going to be instances where dead birds float into shore and rot. Like the sport needs this for PR.” He does not seem to realize that extirpation – the complete elimination of a species within a given jurisdiction – is not a “conservation initiative”. He also wrote, “Oh boy… I am afraid that this will push public opinion around hunting back to the stone ages…This is not worth the anti hunting backlash it is going to produce within the general public…” But of course this kind of hunting is already in the stone age, and yeah, the public may tolerate the idea of eating what you kill in a hunt that is regulated to protect native wildlife, but not this.
Even slob hunters don’t get criticized by “ethical hunters” as much as the dreaded “anti”, short for anti-hunter, a person who lacks the desire to kill animals, and yet, such a person would share this concern: “Is the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters going to provide financial and physical resources to clean up the hundreds of carcasses that careless hunters are going to leave behind to rot along the shoreline of Lake Ontario? We all know lots of hunters aren’t going out of their way to collect these carcasses when they won’t be eating them. Who is going to deal with this problem?”
Ironic that right wing politicians so often object to laws and regulations that are unenforceable, and yet Yakabuski and Ford are enacting just such regulations.
Jake says, “I know of hunters that shoot geese and leave them, despite the requirement not to let them spoil, so yeah, I’m sure many hunters will shoot cormorants and leave them… You honestly believe that every hunter is collecting their cormorants and driving them to a dump or a deadstock company and paying to dispose of them there?”
Mack adds, “…and if everyone followed these laws we wouldn’t need Cos [Conservation Officers]. People already poach when there’s a benefit for them not to, like getting animal meat out of it. When there is no incentive to pick up and dispose of them properly other than not wanting to get caught, people aren’t going to put in the effort to collect dead birds they’re not eating, and will leave them.” Exactly. The appeal, here, is to the slob hunter, to killing for the sake of killing, not utilization, not conservation, not fair chase, just killing.
But first we have Bill, reacting to such restrictions as are in play: “I know eh? I was so stoked to use my grenade launcher, but that 20mm or greater rule really put a damper on my cormorant hunt.” A broadhead is an arrow, and if you go to Google Images and search something like “birds shot with arrows” you’ll see a problem for folks like Bill. Most birds look sick, if viewed at all, when wounded with bird shot, but when wounded by arrows the arrow often remains, conspicuously sticking out of the beak, back, foot or wing of its victim, reminding the majority who don’t hunt how cruel the “sport” can be. So Bill has to restrict his cormorant killing weapons to noisy shotguns.
That’s certainly Tyler’s concern when he says, “It’s a shame we can’t take em in harbors with Guillotine broadheads or air rifles and rimfires.” Tyler’s idea of what is shameful seems a tad odd to most of us, but I guess for him the more opportunity to kill the better and forget public safety or compassion.
But Bryan unwittingly puts his finger on what drives this whole extermination effort when he states: “I wonder how this will work with the hundreds of thousands around Toronto.” There aren’t even hundreds of thousands of cormorants in Ontario, let alone around Toronto, but science-based accuracy is not of great interest to the slob hunter, nor, it seems, Yakabuski and Ford. Real conservationists know that we are losing wildlife at a horrific pace. According to BirdLife International’s State of the World’s Birds Report, 2018, forty percent of the world’s bird species are in decline. Folks like Bryan, indeed, most people, are not familiar with large assemblies of animals, with nature daring to impose a presence on us, being anything other than a passive presence at most, to be visited when convenient, to serve our interests. Cormorants are not a Disney film, nor a cute chickadee at the feeder or a picture of a moose on a postcard, and in spite of our past efforts, intentional or otherwise, have so far managed to recover. How dare they?
Keith writes, “It was illegal to shot them? Hmm wish I would have known.” Ha ha; good one Keith, while Connor thinks, “Should of been legal years ago, this late decision has obliterated the fishing in Ontario and the fact that there is a limit is just sad, each and everyone of these little birds need to get shot”. You can’t conserve a species by shooting every one, and Keith shows us what kind person OFAH and Yakabuski, are catering to. In fact fishing has not been obliterated in Ontario at all.
As Dr. Steven J. Cooke, Professor of Fish Ecology, Carleton University, put it:
“Did you know that fish-eating birds tend to forage on fish that are sick and immunocompromised? Did you know that fish-eating birds help to balance fish populations? Did you know that most efforts to control predators fail and are done to try and appease vocal advocates for culling? If the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (or more likely their political handlers) think that cormorants are villains then we might as well go all in and start shooting osprey and loons.” Of course that used to happen, still sometimes does, and there are lot more loons, about 180,000 194,000, although no one knows for sure, according to Kathy Jones, who coordinates the Canadian Lakes Loon Survey for Birds Canada. Whatever the number, they are eating a lot more fish than are cormorants. In flight and on the water loons are similar in shape and size to cormorants, a point made by many experts to the government, and ignored.
Cooke continues: “Or… maybe we should look at our own actions. The reason we like to blame cormorants is because it is easy. The BIRDS are responsible for the state of our fisheries. The BIRDS are responsible for degraded aquatic ecosystems. The reality is that WE are the drivers of aquatic ecosystem health. From invasive species like zebra mussels and round goby to water pollution arising from agriculture and urbanization to overharvest, humans are both the CAUSE of our current environmental woes and also the SOLUTION.” (Emphasis his.)
While efforts to control such predators as coyotes, or such successful invasive species as starlings or purple loosestrife do fail, they do so for reasons related to population dynamics and ecological adaptiveness of those species that, as explained above, don’t apply to cormorants. Killing blackbirds, woodchucks and starlings satisfies bloodlust without reducing populations but cormorants are among a suite of species with proven vulnerability to persecution.
Why We Fight for Ontario’s Cormorants
I’ll end with Jason, who tells us what we all know, but Yakabuski wants to pretend isn’t true: “It’s just gonna be legal now…how many guys out there been blasting em for yrs n hiding them on shore…I’ve seen it happen lots since the 90s.”
I could go on in defence of Ontario’s cormorants, but the fear and hatred they evoke is too visceral, to fanatic, to ever be influenced by mere facts. Minister Yakabuski was inundated with objections to cormorant hunting from top cormorant and other wildlife experts, and apart from reducing his original plan (which I suspect he intended to do all along) he pushed on, catering to the slob hunters. We know from the documents we received from use of the Freedom of Information legislation that his own ministry opposed the plan, citing basic wildlife management needs not being met.
But there was also, from within his own Ministry, recognition of Yakabuski’s appeal to the slob hunter: “…to allow cormorant carcasses to spoil goes against the key fish and wildlife management principle: that wildlife should only be killed [f]or a legitimate purpose, such as for food, fur, self-defense or protection of property. This principle has been integrated into fish and wildlife legislation and policies by resource management agencies across Canada and the U.S., and is a key component of Ontario’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act. Introducing a spoilage provision is not justified and it undermines the Integrity of MNRF as a science-based, sustainably-focused resource management agency.”
“Integrity” be damned and with it, science-based policy. It is a hallmark of extreme right-wingism to cling to or try to revive past concepts, in this case ones increasingly discredited since the dawn of ecological science. Nature, the Yakabuskis of the world, OFAH and slob hunters everywhere, seem to believe, is still to be conquered, to be forced into servitude. I get that. But increasingly the revolution in communication of knowledge and the reaction to our severe plundering of the world we evolved in and subsequent loss of its ability to sustain us has promoted an appreciation for “the others” with whom we share the world, an understanding of predator-prey relationships and an indebtedness to the beauty of the world as it is in the absence of human intrusion. From bizarre weather to mass extinctions to human migrations to pandemics and severe economic downturns, the fruits of the attitudes reflected by the way we have acted are bitter indeed, to the realization of growing numbers of us.
I have no solution but to fight for facts, for compassion, for understanding, an uphill battle but one better fought than to surrender to indifference and the rules of hate, fear and ignorance.