Cormorants straining West Sister
By Rick Neale
Port Clinton News Herald
WEST SISTER ISLAND -- Ohio's sole national wildlife refuge
is being besieged by double-breasted cormorants, a burgeoning
bird species that's wrecking the ecosystem with its corrosive
West Sister Island is an uninhabited, forested sanctuary,
located nine miles offshore from Davis-Besse Nuclear Power
Station. Roughly 40 percent of the heron and egret populations
in the Great Lakes region use the 82-acre island as nesting
ground. But cormorants are now threatening to muscle out
the island's native birds.
Thousands of the black-feathered invaders now line the
rocky shoreline, shoulder-to-shoulder, packing West Sister
Island's gravel beaches and limestone cliffs. Hundreds
more roost in hackberry trees -- dozens of which have
been defoliated into gray skeletons by poisonous cormorant
"This is way worse than it was last year. I was
out here the last two years, and this is horrible,"
said Steve Dushane, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist.
"This is exponential. It's way worse than I've ever
Cormorants were first spotted on West Sister Island in
1992. The small island now bustles with more than 2,600
nesting pairs, said Mark Shieldcastle, project leader
at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' nearby Crane
Creek Wildlife Research Station. An undetermined number
of cormorants also inhabit the island from other locales.
"We're definitely starting to see some tree damage
from the droppings," Shieldcastle said. "They're
highly acidic, so it just burns the plants. Deterioration
"Saving this island from destruction is highly important."
Habitat loss and overcrowding could encroach on West
Sister Island's native birds, including great blue
herons, great egrets, black-crowned night herons, snowy
eagles and dozens of other species.
Cormorant populations have exploded across the Great
Lakes, overrunning East Sister and Middle islands in nearby
Canadian waters. The large water birds feast on fish by
diving into Lake Erie, and fishermen are blaming the birds
for lowered smallmouth bass numbers in some areas.
The pests nest 50 to 70 feet off the ground, making it
all but impossible to oil eggs or destroy their ball-shaped
nests. Federal and state wildlife officials have contemplated
a cormorant hunting season -- but the birds taste bad.
And throwing West Sister Island open to hunters could
create further complications, Shieldcastle said.
"All the species intermingle, so you can't just
come out and start shooting birds," he said. "That's
cutting your own throat if you're going to disturb the
species you're trying to protect.
Friday, federal wildlife officials from USFWS and Canada
met with ODNR and Ontario provincial biologists in Windsor
at an inaugural "cormorant summit," Shieldcastle
said. The agencies hope to create a orchestrated campaign
across Lake Erie to counterattack the cormorant threat.
"Green Island is suffering the same sort of devastation,"
Ohio House Minority Leader Chris Redfern, D-Catawba Island
said. "The state and federal governments need some
sort of concerted effort to start thinning the population.
Public access is prohibited at West Sister Island, which
is open only to wildlife officials and researchers.