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Great Lakes Article:

Ugly black bird' bedevils lakes
Cormorant reviled as threat to perch

Julie Deardorff
Chicago Tribune

SUAMICO, Wis. -- Thirty years after his Boy Scout troop helped rescue the double-crested cormorant from extinction, Randy Szcepamski wishes he'd never bothered. Cormorants have returned with a vengeance to this sleepy bay by his home, and most here blame the voracious fish-eating bird for decimating the area's prized yellow perch population.

Once a threatened species, the large black water bird is enjoying an unprecedented resurgence, much to the dismay of its critics. Not only is it ugly, inedible and useless, they say, but the creature dines on a pound of fish a day, depleting supplies for sport and commercial fisheries and ruining habitation.

Now, as the cormorant makes an unwelcome return to Green Bay and Great Lakes towns to nest for the summer, officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are drafting a national cormorant management plan to control the expanding population. The new rules, which could take effect this year, would let state, federal and tribal wildlife agencies decide whether and how to kill the birds if they are damaging public resources.

Legal methods would include shooting, oiling eggs and destroying nests. Though angry fishermen have suggested it, a hunting season would not be established for the bird, which is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

With slender beaks, long snakelike necks and short, stiff tails, cormorants are striking goose-size members of the pelican order. Their name means "sea crow," but some people call them water turkeys, water buzzards or flying rats. Others call them much worse.

"I really, really hate them," said Szcepamski, who lives along the shore of Dead Horse Bay, where thousands of cormorants gather in the summer. "I look at those nesting poles we set up as kids and think, `What did I do?'"

In the Great Lakes region, the number of double-crested cormorant nests increased from 89 to 38,000, an average annual increase of 29 percent from 1970 to 1991, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Across the country, the population expanded about 8 percent each year from 1975 to 2000, according to Breeding Bird Survey trends.

While the issue particularly affects areas such as Green Bay and Michigan's Les Cheneaux Islands in the summer, the birds are found along coasts, rivers and lakes in such places as east Texas and Louisiana in the winter. Ten public meetings have been held in other areas wrestling with the cormorant, including Washington, D.C., Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas and New York.

"The cormorant controversy is about resource allocation and how we divide those resources," said Ken Stromborg, an environmental contaminants specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Green Bay, who believes the birds are part of a functioning ecosystem. "Cormorants eat fish. No one argues about that. People eat fish. What proportion should go to people? It depends who you ask."

Human persecution and the pesticide DDT--which made egg shells so fragile they crumbled under a cormorant's webbed feet--nearly wiped out the species in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the Great Lakes. In Wisconsin, only 66 breeding pairs remained by 1972.

Today, the population is at a historic high of between 1 million and 2 million birds. Though aquaculture producers in 13 states can kill cormorants to prevent raids on catfish, trout and salmon, the bird's population has grown due to reduced contaminant levels, protection from egg-smashers and an ample supply of food.

But as the cormorants' numbers increased, yellow perch began to disappear. Lake Michigan yellow perch declined dramatically between 1988 and 1998. Fishermen who see flocks of several hundred cormorants hunting are certain they are responsible for the shortage.

A recent study on New York's Oneida Lake and eastern Lake Ontario found that migrating cormorants can diminish the number of fish of catchable size available to anglers.

But the study said other factors such as water quality, aquatic habitat, natural predation and fishing also affect populations. And other research shows fish species valued in commercial and sport fisheries are usually a small proportion of the birds' diet, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife.

One study found that alewives and sticklebacks made up the major portion of the cormorants' diet. In fact, cormorants accounted for only 0.8 percent of the mortality of legal-size perch, whereas summer sport fishing accounted for 2.5 percent, according to the study.

"Commercial and sport fishermen want to use this bird as a scapegoat," said Tom Erdman, curator of the Richter Museum of Natural History at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay.

Fast as a fish

Though awkward when airborne, cormorants can move through water as fast as a fish, swim long distances and stay underwater for a minute. Because they have no oil glands to grease their feathers and repel water, they perch with their wings spread to dry. They even have expandable stomachs.

"They're very opportunistic feeders," said Paul Peeters, a fish biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Sturgeon Bay. "If there were perch here right now, cormorants would be eating a lot of perch. But there aren't a lot of perch here."

That's because the cormorants have eaten them all, said sport fisherman Dick Heumpfner, who believes the only good cormorant is a dead one.

But Peeters and many other officials say cormorants are unfairly blamed. "I believe it's the interaction of all the exotic species that cause the failure of the perch," he said.

Other factors affecting the perch include a loss of spawning habitat, pollution, low water levels and competitors such as carp and white perch, according to experts who spoke at a recent workshop on yellow perch restoration in Green Bay.

"I don't have much left here," said Val Drzewiecki, owner of the Suamico Fish Co., which specializes in perch. He estimates business is down 75 percent. "I'd say the biggest problem is the cormorant, but there are other problems. White perch and zebra mussels eat the plankton and baby fry need those to hatch."

Branded by the Bible

That cormorants have received any protection at all is somewhat remarkable given their bad reputation. The Bible declared the birds unclean, and cormorants have been associated with everything from the devil to Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime.

In addition to fish plundering, cormorants have obnoxious personal habits. The phosphoric acid in their guano kills vegetation and can devastate forested islands. In 1995, two domesticated pigs were turned loose on a Green Bay island to disrupt nesting attempts. But the cormorants, perched in white cedar trees, ignored the pigs. The following spring, the pig carcasses were found side by side.

"They're pretty smelly, foul and nasty," Stromborg said.

Commercial fisherman Dennis Hickey of Bailey's Harbor would like to shoot the birds. But as good as that might feel, he said, it wouldn't work because cormorants are migratory.

"We're not talking about wiping them out. We're talking about population controls," he said. "I just hate to see so much of our resources wasted on ugly black birds that don't do anything. At least sea gulls clean up the beach."

But the bird does have some fans. Mark Tweedale, one of Szcepamski's neighbors, sees the resurgence of the cormorant as a sign of a healthy ecosystem.

"Anyone that's seen the majesty of six to 10 thousand birds come down Dead Horse Bay driving schools of gizzard shad, rainbow shad, rainbow smelt, whatever it is they're eating, it's a spectacle," Tweedale said.

"There are other problems out there, and getting rid of the cormorants isn't going to be the answer. Watch the birds. Enjoy them. We've got great egrets, we've got pelicans, we have eagles nesting on the southern bay for the first time in many years. I say leave well enough alone."

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