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State has bird species in sights
Jump in number of cormorants leads Ohio to shoot 500, plan to kill thousands more in 2006
By Bob Downing
Akron Beacon Journal
Published June 12, 2005


The double-crested cormorant is wearing out its welcome in Ohio.

The return of the black-feathered, long-necked diving bird that eats lots of fish was hailed as an environmental comeback on Lake Erie. But that's changing. The goose-sized birds are everywhere, and problems are growing.

The cormorants, with their highly acidic droppings, are destroying key Lake Erie habitats used by other birds.

That led the Ohio Division of Wildlife in May to shoot 500 of the birds for the first time on two islands in western Lake Erie, said wildlife biologist Mark Shieldcastle.

The state wants to kill thousands more cormorants next year, he said.

At the same time, cormorants are spreading to inland lakes, including the Portage Lakes and Mogadore Reservoir, where the birds have taken up residence in recent years.

There are as many as 150 cormorants on West Reservoir in Coventry Township and 40 at Mogadore Reservoir in Portage County's Suffield Township.

Cormorants are also found at Berlin Reservoir on the Portage-Stark-Mahoning county line and Lake Dorothy in Norton, along with Lake Milton, Mosquito Creek and Meander Reservoir, said state wildlife biologist Tom Henry.

Those were believed to be immature birds not capable of nesting; they were believed to be just roosting and eating fish. But a Beacon Journal reporter and photographer found three cormorant nests with young on a small island at the north end of West Reservoir. The site is the fifth nesting colony of cormorants in Ohio.

``That's good reporting... but it's bad news for us,'' Henry said.

Ohio is concerned about that inland movement because the cormorants can have a big impact on local fisheries, Shieldcastle said. ``Several hundred cormorants could throw the balance out of whack real fast,'' he said. ``It's got the potential to become a real big problem.''

Surveys from air, ground

The state intends to conduct an aerial survey of Ohio's inland lakes this summer to determine how big the cormorant problem is, he said. The state also wants to do radio tracking to better understand the movement of the birds, he said.

Ohio is also seeking bird-watching volunteers to help conduct an on-the-ground cormorant survey later this year, he said.

The fact that a cormorant eats 1 pound of fish per day poses a major threat to Ohio's inland lakes, said outdoorsman Ben Doepel, a longtime president of the Goodyear Hunting and Fishing Club. He likened cormorants to the hungry white-tailed deer that are having a serious impact on the flora and fauna in Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Ohio needs to begin an aggressive campaign to curtail the cormorants before the problems grow and spread, Doepel said.

Proposed reduction

Next year, Ohio would like to cut the cormorant population to 3,000 nests and to limit nesting sites to three, Shieldcastle said. ``It would be irresponsible to do nothing,'' he said.

Ohio has perhaps 6,000 nests; in addition to the Summit County site, they are at uninhabited West Sister, Green and Turning Point islands in Lake Erie, and inland at the Mercer Wildlife Area in Mercer County. There are perhaps 50 nests at Mercer and 1,500 on Turning Point Island in Sandusky's harbor, Shieldcastle said.

The number of nests on 15-acre, state-owned Green Island grew from 50 last year to 830 this year, he said.

The state is awaiting an updated count on 77-acre West Sister, a federal national wildlife refuge; it had 3,700 cormorant nests last year, but the number is expected to have grown, he said.

Other birds affected

The cormorants' guano is high in nitrogen; that kills the trees and vegetation used by other nesting birds on the islands, he said. The cormorants can adapt by nesting on the ground, but other birds are driven away, he said.

West Sister is important because it is used as a nesting spot by 40 percent of the great blue herons and egrets on the Great Lakes, he said.

Ohio's plan to sharply reduce cormorant numbers will require approval from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ohio is preparing documents to support its request. A court fight with animal-rights groups is also expected, Shieldcastle said.

Audubon Ohio, for one, has reservations about widespread killing of cormorants, said executive director Jerry Tinianow. The group acknowledges cormorants are causing local problems, but it says more proof is needed to show they are having a widespread impact. It favors nonlethal options.

Other states kill birds

Ohio is not alone. About a dozen states, including Michigan, New York, Minnesota and Wisconsin, have taken similar actions to kill cormorants. Ontario has recently curtailed its efforts because of opposition.

Shieldcastle said there is no evidence that the cormorants are having a major impact on Lake Erie fisheries, although most Ohio anglers are convinced the birds are cutting into fish numbers. But the cormorants can affect local areas by heavily eating fish in one area for several weeks, he said.

Ohio gets an influx of an additional 50,000 to 100,000 cormorants that may spend several weeks eating fish on Lake Erie before migrating south, where they have become infamous for raiding catfish farms during their winter stay, Shieldcastle said.

Ohio is considering nonlethal options including noisemakers to scare off the transient cormorants, he said.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com

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