Ordinarily, the mere mention of cormorants in any Maine port produces a reaction that can range from a roll of the eyes to sputtering profanity. But these days, while the relentlessly reviled seabird is being actively hunted elsewhere, the double-crested cormorant remains among the most common, most curious, and most misunderstood creatures on the entire coast.
"People often need someone or something to blame," explains David Cadbury, executive director of Friends of Maine Seabird Islands, which is a Rockport-based advocacy group formed specifically to defuse clashes between humans and seabirds."Cormorants are a handy and traditional 'bad bird.' But I think they need to get a fair break. They're not as bad as some say they are."
Still, Cadbury and others have an uphill climb in their quest to make the ubiquitous cormorant a little more popular. Known variously as "shags," "shy-pokes," "crow-ducks," as well as less printable names, the double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) has been a summertime visitor to the coast of Maine, and Moosehead Lake, since long before Europeans turned up on these rocky shores. Feeding exclusively on live marine creatures, cormorants spend a sizable portion of their days in the water, not on the wing like seagulls, terns, and others seabirds. With plumage primarily of a slightly greenish- or brownish-black color, cormorants are probably best known by their "spread-eagle" pose, which they strike when they dry out their feathers while perching on ledges, pilings, docks, boats, and other handy shoreside surfaces.
Unfortunately, even this strangely comical pose looks sinister to some: it gives the bird a prehistoric cast and in some eyes mimics the infamous Nazi eagle symbol of World War II. More importantly, though, cormorants have a tendency to leave a messy calling card while they are airing things out, depositing guano that has been known to remove a dock's paint and, in sufficient quantities, defoliate entire nesting islands. While Cadbury and friends may look upon this habit as part of the natural order of things, many shoreside dwellers see it in a far less charitable light. In fact, some in Maine would like to lift restrictions on cormorant hunting, which has been prohibited for generations. Nearly a dozen other states have already been successful in declaring open season on cormorants, and that anticormorant movement appears headed toward Maine.
The loudest objections to cormorants in Maine come from fishermen, both recreational and commercial. They claim cormorants eat hatchling fish in numbers great enough to destroy entire fisheries. But studies repeatedly have shown the average cormorant diet is composed mostly of what's known as "trash fish," which are various sea creatures with no commercial or recreational value. Depending on which study you read, the proportion of trash fish in a cormorant's diet is between 96 and 98 percent. And where Maine's signature sea creature - the lobster - is concerned, the proportion of hatchling lobsters found in a cormorant stomach is almost statistically nonexistent, somewhere around 0.001 percent. But that hasn't stopped the complaining.
"Cormorants are just not as big a problem as some people think they are," insists Brad Allen, a biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (IF&W). In twenty-five years of studying cormorants and specializing in the management of other seabirds at IF&W, Allen claims he's actually developed a healthy respect for shags. "They are Mother Nature's most incredible underwater pursuit weapon," says Allen, a former lobsterman and lifelong resident of the coast of Maine. Indeed, at least one study has shown cormorants can zip along underwater - propelled by both feet and wings - at speeds of up to fifteen miles an hour, or more than three times faster than the average duck.
Cormorants achieve their underwater agility through a combination of sleek body design and constant in-water practice. Like loons, cormorants paddle around estuaries, bays, and coves immersed low in the water for hours at a time. Indeed, cormorants are often mistaken for loons by summer visitors who fail to take into account the cormorant's upturned, hooked beak. The loon's beak is usually held parallel to the water and lacks the hook. Both are about the size of a small goose but the cormorant's neck is decidedly longer and more goose-like than the loon's. Additionally, the plumage of cormorants is monochromatic while the summer loon sports black-and-white striping on its wings and often has a dark greenish-black head. Cormorant plumage is also soaked by its efforts in the water, giving it an oily look - although the feathers are not oily at all. Loon plumage, on the other hand, stays dry in appearance with no sheen. Cormorants also have sapphire blue or green eyes while loons have the trademark red ones. Two small tufts of feathers on their head give the double-crested cormorant its name. Loons have no tufts.
Cormorants are also considerably less shy of humans than loons - and most other seabirds, for that matter. When feeding, cormorants will completely ignore boaters within twenty feet of them. Indeed, during the spring run of alewives up rivers and estuaries, cormorants often can be seen standing around sluices of old dams right in the midst of a community, waiting for alewives to appear and supply their daily intake of about a pound of fish per bird. "They're actually pretty smart when it comes to finding food and using the habits of fish to their advantage," says biologist Allen, who is on the cutting edge of the debate over whether to declare open season on cormorants.
The anticormorant crowd first became active about ten years ago in the South and Midwest states where trout and catfish farming are an increasingly important new industry. With recreational anglers adding to the cormorant-regulation din from aquaculturists, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2003 expanded the means by which the birds can be controlled, including shooting them and poisoning their eggs. A permit to do so is still required and state wildlife agencies must approve of the more aggressive cormorant control efforts. And that's where Brad Allen comes in.
"Most people in Maine have been pretty reasonable about it," Allen says of the new authority over cormorants. Indeed, advocates for the locally endangered Atlantic salmon populations, who are among the most vocal critics of cormorants, recently agreed first to use loud pyrotechnics along the Narraguagus River in Washington County, instead of the outright shooting of cormorants. Allen says the efficiency of the noisy effort on the Narraguagus is still being assessed and salmon advocates will be looking at the data with a critical eye.
In the meantime, Southern and Midwest anticormorant sentiment has been steadily working its way northward and eastward. On nearby Lake Champlain, Vermont and New York cormorant defenders appear to be fighting a losing effort to keep shag killers from having their way. Shooting and poisoning recently have been okayed in some areas, allowing licensed hunters to take advantage of the cormorant's naturally gawky flight pattern. Unlike ducks, a cormorant is slow to take off from the water. Instead of launching straight into the air, a cormorant will start out slow, flapping its soggy wings wildly while it begins "running" with its webbed feet across the top of the water, accelerating over perhaps seventy-five yards until it can get up enough speed to actually become airborne. Consequently, they are easy targets for hunters.
Maine, however, may buck the anticormorant trend. Biologist Allen thinks shag populations in Maine already are being brought under control through more natural methods. "We haven't conducted the population study yet to prove it," Allen says, "but I'd say, from my own observations, cormorant populations at the eastern end of the coast are actually in decline." Allen attributes most of the reduction - or at least the lack of increase - to predator birds, the bald eagle in particular. "They regularly attack cormorant colonies and go for the baby chicks," Allen explains. "In ten minutes, an entire colony's future population can be erased."
And natural population control is of little concern to cormorant defenders like Cadbury of Friends of Maine Seabirds. "There's not much we can or should do about that," Cadbury says of the eagle attacks. Additionally, he is optimistic most Mainers will have little interest in putting cormorants in state-sanctioned crosshairs. "There are a terrific number of environmentally concerned people in Maine, and they're very organized," he notes. "There's also a live-and-let-live attitude among most Maine people." He speculates that between the two viewpoints, cormorants may well continue to find a fairly secure home in the Pine Tree State for the foreseeable future.
For more information on the Friends of Maine Seabird Islands, call: 207-236-3383, or visit its Web site at: www.maineseabirds.org