Of Cormorants, Deer, and Geese, Oh My............
Updated: Sep 17, 2021
In the summer of 1998, nine men took several boat trips out to a small island in eastern Lake Ontario and shot approximately 900 cormorants and chicks on their nesting grounds. This outrageous and illegal slaughter of federally-protected birds made national headlines, and as an Audubon employee at the time, I was horrified, but also provoked to somehow use this event in a way that would hopefully elicit support and understanding for these increasingly common and unglamorous water birds.
I’d seen many thousands of cormorants during my years working for Audubon in Maine’s Muscongus Bay, but I knew nothing of the complaints of freshwater fishermen and others in different parts of the country who were blaming the fish-eating birds for a precipitous decline in the numbers of Smallmouth Bass, Yellow Perch, and other prized sport species. I soon found out that the situation in Lake Ontario and other fresh-water bodies was far more complex than first thought, and that a careful exploration of the overall ecology there would need to go back more than a hundred years in order to tell the true story of why attractive game fish had significantly declined. The nesting colony on Little Galloo Island had ballooned over a 20 year period, and cormorants were thus a very easy bird to blame for a bad day’s fishing, but the truth of the matter took a lot of digging.
As I learned about the effects of decades of heavy commercial fishing on the Great Lakes, the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the introduction of Zebra Mussels, and a variety of other key influences that eventually led to a much-reduced overall biodiversity, I decided to create an in-depth school curriculum that would reveal and look at different sides of the issue. It also seemed like a good idea at the time to come up with some way to directly engage student’s emotions, because this was a highly charged issue and I wanted students to share some of that intensity. I decided to create a mock Town Meeting, where girls and boys would be in front of their peers, role-playing the current day drama as cormorant supporters, cormorant “haters,” and those with neutral positions. There’d be fishermen, marina owners, conservationists, hotel owners, bird-watchers, etc. etc.
This kind of staged event, complete with props and costumes, would be the culmination of sharing the backdrop of historical and scientific truths about a bird that famously likes to eat fish. My intent was to offer up a memorable experience in developing critical-thinking skills, so that students as young as 5th grade could view the facts, the feelings, and the local livelihoods being affected, and then make their own decisions about how best to handle burgeoning cormorant populations in an area dependent on summer tourism and sport fishermen.
This was no small-task but it was great fun and eventually I came up with a multi-media, multi-day program which I tried out successfully in a school in my home town of Garrison, NY, and which I then took to 6th graders in a school upstate only miles away from where the actual shootings took place, near Watertown, New York. I was absolutely thrilled that the superintendent and principal and teachers in the very area that galvanized national headlines were open to the idea of an Audubon educator bringing to their school a program I was calling “Exploring the Cormorant Controversy.” I was also a little bit nervous.
I mention all this now, in 2021, some twenty years after presenting a number of these week-long programs, because the issues of human-wildlife controversies are expanding, as is understandable due to human population growth and encroachment. And at least two such examples are becoming much more common, at least here in the East - Canada Geese pooping all over golf courses, parks, and freshwater beaches, and deer decimating home gardens and turning regional forests into depauperized remnants of what they once were.
It’s very easy, I’ve found, to hate deer who eat all the buds and edibles on our newly-planted shrubs, flowers, and other tasty plants, as well as to refer to Canada Geese as noisy pests whose innumerable droppings pose threats to recreation and health. The feeling of resentment about specific animals is nothing unusual – it’s been going on for much of our human history. However, the other side of the coin does exist, and by that I mean one can investigate and ultimately gain an historical and scientific picture of why, in fact, these two animals, for example, have come to be so common. With research one can find out that there are events and reasons why this is so. Not that it makes the threat of deer eating your flowers any less annoying or enraging, though. And in thinking about this, I’ve come to believe that there is probably no real equivalency between a habitat-limited water bird called a cormorant that most people are completely unaware of, and the extremely wide-spread populations of White-tailed Deer and Canada Geese, whose presence and behaviors affect vastly more people and more ecosystems.
The common denominator, I think, is that even if you know why some animals are proliferating it doesn’t change the overall equation of wanting them out of the picture. And now some of our regional neighbors here in Putnam County, NY are complaining about the return of beavers to area wetlands where their dam-building ultimately floods adjacent properties or roads. Other folks post notices on their local Facebook pages of their fear of coyotes attacking either them or their small children or pets. And some want all the terrifying little garter snakes in their neighborhood to somehow magically disappear. To say nothing about spiders. The list goes on…..
Is there a remedy for this? Education is the obvious one, and with the cormorant controversy school programs, this turned out to be a remarkable, memorable, and inspiring group of educational experiments. While many residents on eastern Lake Ontario blamed the cormorants for eating up all the good fish, biologists eventually studied stomach contents and “pellets” of a large number of the birds, and found that they eat mostly non-sport fish such as alewives, shiners, sticklebacks, etc. The birds do, however, eat a small but important percentage of Smallmouth Bass and Yellow Perch. When the students learned this, along with all the other historical facts, they realized that blaming cormorants for the area’s decline in sport fish was quite short-sighted. They had gained critical thinking skills, which are so often tragically missing at all levels of American society. Students typically voted at the end of their Town Meetings to conduct some kind of management at the cormorant nesting grounds, such as oiling eggs, which renders them non-viable. They weren’t in favor, though, of shooting or other lethal means.
Dealing with deer and geese, and other suburban and urban wildlife species is much more challenging for the obvious reasons of their widespread range and increasing numbers. Perhaps creating new and similarly engaging school presentations would help educate our younger citizens about the complexity of how an eco-system works, with all the inter-relationships going on, both natural and with humans.
I don’t have an answer, though, to dealing with the deer and geese issue. I did just build two sixty foot circles of fencing around areas of native shrubs I want to protect from the hungry deer who live in the woods behind our house, and I’m not soon going to a pond to swim where the geese have added their earthy contributions to the grass and beach. We could re-establish the wolf population here in New York and New England, which I think would do wonders to keep down the deer population. The idea of bringing back natural predators seems logical and scientifically literate, doesn’t it? That, however, would be inviting a whole new controversy, one that would probably make all the others seem quite insignificant in terms of drama, noise, and emotion..............