Bird Watcher's General Store

Where Are the Cormorants - 08/27/04


Dear Bird Folks:

On our annual drive from Pennsylvania to Truro we looked forward to certain landmarks along the way. The last landmark on our journey was seeing the thousands of goofy birds sitting on the power lines near the Orleans rotary. In recent years those birds have all but disappeared. We miss them. Where have they gone and will they be back?

-Joan, Harrisburg, PA

You're Lucky Joan,

After a few weeks in Truro you escaped back to Harrisburg. You missed out on all of the off season nasty screaming about those "goofy birds" sitting on the power lines. In fact, you could have gone to just about any one of a hundred places in North America and listened to people scream about those goofy birds, aka Double-crested Cormorants. Why are some people so upset with cormorants? How much time do you have Joan?

To begin with cormorants are gregarious birds, they love each others company. And it's a good thing for them, because apparently they are the only ones who can stand themselves. They nest and roost in large groups and that's part of the problem. Any large group of anything, whether it be cormorants on the wires, geese on a golf course or sun bathers on the beach, are going to cause problems. The trouble is the birds don't pick up after themselves; they are pretty sloppy. Sun bathers are sloppy too for that matter, but the difference is the sun bathers pay for parking.

The power lines that hang over Cedar Pond, by the Orleans rotary, create the perfect roosting location for the cormorants. The birds are near water, they are isolated from predators and there is plenty of room for the entire gang, which can be several hundred strong. And strong is what the people around the pond complained the most about. Cormorants only eat fish. They have no mint or lavender in their diet, so their droppings can be plenty ripe. The constant supply of fresh cormorant waste, in or around the pond, created an odor that was reported to be so vile that even a black lab wouldn't roll in it.

Are cormorants evil birds? No, of course not. Cedar Pond would have been a perfect location for them if all those houses hadn't been built along the shoreline. The property owners, who are paying plenty to park there, were tired of having to wear gas masks in their own yards. They begged for help from anyone who would listen to them.

A few years back, after many other elaborate ideas had failed, the town developed a plan to scare the birds from landing near the pond. Officials fired blank cannon and shotgun blasts at the birds as they came to settle in for the evening. This simple, but rather noisy plan worked amazingly well. The birds instantly moved away to some other cape town, to annoy somebody else. The property owners were thrilled with the results and didn't mind that they had to trade their gas masks for earplugs.

Besides creating problems with their large nesting or roosting sites, cormorants have created enemies in the sport fishing community. Cormorants are excellent at catching fish. Some people in the sport fishing world aren't real happy about the competition. Many thousands of cormorant adults, nests, eggs and babies are destroyed each year in the name of protecting the almighty yellow perch for the chosen few.

In Asia, however, the people have long decided that it was in their best interest to work with the cormorants, rather than destroying them. The local people have trained the cormorants to fish for them. Tethered birds, with restrictive rings on their neck, are tossed into the water from boats. When the bird surfaces with a fish, its master removes the fish and sets it back out to work. The cormorants don't work for free, however. Their master must loosen the neck ring after the bird has caught seven fish, allowing it to eat the eighth. If the ring isn't loosened after seven fish, the bird will stop fishing. Amazingly, it appears that cormorants have the ability to count, at least to seven, although they still seem to struggle with fractions and long division.

Those landmark cormorants are still on the Cape Joan, but they have been dispersed to other locations. If you need a new landmark to look forward to, you could always use Arnold's restaurant in Eastham. It is similar to a cormorant roost. There are always hundreds of individuals gathered that have just finished eating lots of fish, but the tarter sauce droppings smell much better.

Artwork by Catherine Clark


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