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At the Nexus of Bird Life and People Life

A review by Donna L. Schulman

The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History, by Richard J. King

University of New Hampshire Press, 2013

360 pages, $24.95—softcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14301P

Wherever you are, you have probably seen a cormorant.

Prehistoric in look, awkward in stature, there they are: sitting on a craggy rock with wings outstretched or swimming in an ocean, river, or lake, bill pointed diagonally toward the sky. The 35-40 or so species of cormorants and shags, the family Phalacrocoracidae, reside along the coasts of every continent, including North America, where the well-traveled birder can add six species to a life list.

We, birders and naturalists, enjoy observing cormorants. We are in the minority.

This is a bird that has evoked strong emotions around the world for centuries. It is despised, metaphorically as a symbol of gluttony and greed in fables and literature, economically as a predator that destroys fishing industries. It is valued (or exploited, depending on your point of view) as a superb fishing companion, trained to fish the rivers of Japan and China. Cormorant guano has been prized for its fertilizing qualities, even sparking violence over ownership.

The relationship that members of this family have developed with humans can only be described as “complicated.” In The Devil’s Cormorant, Richard J. King teases out this relationship from multiple perspectives—literary, historical, artistic, ornithological, political—in a book that is informative, personable, and fascinating.

King, who has a background in both literature and the maritime world (he has been teaching and crewing on tall ships for over fifteen years), traveled to Japan, Peru, South Africa, England, and several U.S. states to research his subject. He’s organized his book to reflect his travels, each of the twelve chapters focusing on one place. (Including the Galápagos, I need to add. You can’t have a book about cormorants without the Flightless Cormorant. King’s trip to the Galápagos was apparently made before he started this project, so the islands are largely seen through the eyes of Kurt Vonnegut and his novel Galápagos.)

Bookending each chapter are brief, poetic episodes describing a year in the life of the Double-crested Cormorants of Gates Island, ConnecticutKing’s local patch, as we find out at the end of the book. The organization works well. King uses each location as the anchor for explorations of a particular area of “cormorant studies,” effortlessly traveling back and forth between the current day and the past.

So we go from King’s recent visit with a master cormorant fisherman in Gifu City back to 16th-century Japan, when using cormorants for fishing was a valued occupation, not a tourist attraction; from the skins of the extinct Spectacled Cormorant at the Natural History Museum in Great Britain to the history of cormorant taxonomy; from King’s eager participation in an eco-tour of South Georgia to stories of earlier frigid explorations, particularly a 1946 episode in which a Blue-eyed Shag is the main course at Christmas dinner.

One chapter is devoted to the short story “The Wounded Cormorant” by Liam O’Flaherty, King’s jumping-off point for an essay on the cormorant in English-language literature. A symbolic Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, the cormorant is treated more sympathetically, for example, in the lovely poem “The Cormorant in Its Element” by the naturalist-librarian-writer Amy Clampitt.

BINbuttonThe text is meticulously documented with citations to scholarly articles, explorer’s journals, personal communications, novels, and poems, all listed in the lengthy “Notes” section. But this does not read like a scholarly tome. Ornithological information is interwoven with King’s personal experiences and portraits of the people he meets on his travels. This can be a tricky balance, but King does it well, and his personal observations, tinged with self-deprecating humor, are never distracting. This is a highly readable book.

Of the people King talks to, the most memorable for me is Ron Ditch, the self-described “local hero” of Henderson Harbor. It was Ditch and his friends who killed thousands of Double-crested Cormorants on Little Galloo Island in Lake Ontario in 1998—and in 1999 were fined $100,000. A newspaper article about that slaughter inspired King’s project.

King visits two other places in the U.S. that are key to understanding our ambivalent attitudes to the cormorant: Sand Island, Oregon, near the mouth of the Columbia River, where salmon and steelhead trout run and where scientists study and manipulate the breeding sites of terns and cormorants; and Belzoni, Mississippi, where the owners of aquaculture ponds raise catfish and employ men full time to chase the cormorants away.

This is where the gluttony and the greed come into play. Cormorants have a high metabolic rate, raise more chicks than most other birds, and eat more fish than other birds their size. Sport fishermen, stakeholders in the salmon and trout industry, and owners of catfish farms all blame the cormorant for the loss of their fish and the loss of their profit. King does a superlative job of weaving together the complicated background to each case, summarizing surveys, habitat changes (usually human-caused), economic demand, and government policies past and present.

Over most of the book, King doesn’t judge, but in the final chapter he lets a little of his outrage come through as he details the idiocy of new laws permitting the killing of more cormorants and makes a case for a more nuanced, better-informed public policy.

I found it useful to have access to the internet while reading The Devil’s Cormorant. King spends a lot of time describing each of the cormorant species he writes about, which is greatbut in this visual age, we want to see an image. The black-and-white photographs grouped together at the center of the book don’t do justice to the rich tones of cormorants’ gular skin, lores, and eyes, or to the subtle beauty of their brown and black, sometimes greenish, sometimes pied plumage. Similarly, the reproductions of paintings and drawings lack drama without color, although the placement of Ando Hiroshige and Keisai Eisen’s ca. 1840 Japanese print “Gōdo, Cormorant Fishing Boats on the Nearby Nagara River” above a photo of today’s Gifu fishermen and their birds is an effective illustration of how little that relationship has changed.

In addition to the extensive notes, King provides an excellent bibliography, which he cheekily says “represents an essential foundation for the sure-to-be-soon-blossoming field of Cormorant Studies, both for the general reader and the specialist.” It includes fiction and plays, poems and short stories, and films and videos available on the internet.

The index, though extensive, could be organized better. Except for the Double-crested Cormorant, which is indexed under the letter “D,” all of the cormorant species and subspecies mentioned in the text are indexed together under two headings: once under “cormorant species (common name as listed in appendix),” and again under “cormorant species (scientific name as listed in appendix).” I would have preferred a separate index entry for each species.

On the plus side, the index goes beyond a listing of names, places, and species to include behavioral topics such as “wing-spreading” and three separate entries on “killing of cormorants”: as pests, for food or sport, and for research.

An appendix, “Cormorant Species of the World and IUCN Red List Status,” is a combination of taxonomy (derived from Bryan Nelson’s Pelicans, Cormorants, and Their Relatives, 2005) and reality check. Since the publication of this book in 2013, the Cape Cormorant has officially moved from near-threatened to endangered status, where it joins the Bank Cormorant and Pitt Shag, right behind the critically endangered Chatham Shag. The reasons? A collapsing pelagic fish population, oiling, and disease. The specter of extinction hangs over the devil’s bird. Hard to believe, seeing how abundant other cormorant species are around the world (22 are “species of least concern”). Easy to understand once you’ve read this book.

Each species of cormorant and shag has a specific niche and history, and although they share physical and behavioral traits, they are vulnerable to environmental disruption. And according to King, the cultural heritage of the cormorant as a bird of evil appetite has negatively influenced wildlife management policies, especially in the U.S.

This is not just King’s theory. Two other recent books about cormorants, The Double-crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah (2013) by Linda R. Wires, and Dennis Wild’s The Double-crested Cormorant: Symbol of Ecological Conflict (2012), also seek to dispel the myths attached to this bird. As those subtitles suggest, we not only need to change our policies, we need to think about and change our stories.

Like Mark Cocker’s Birds and People, The Devil’s Cormorant is about the intersection of bird life and people life. It motivates us to think about cormorants and to reexamine our attitudes. It would be lovely to read other books that take this multidisciplinary approach to a bird family or species. While it is hard to think of another family as controversial as the Phalacrocoracidae, there are many species that, as Cocker has shown, are elemental parts of our culture, not always in a positive way.

In the meantime, I am going outside to watch the Double-crested Cormorants on the lake in my neighborhood. Wherever you live, there is probably a cormorant nearby. And, as King shows, once we take away the baggage of our own perceptions, we find the ultimate reason to read and think about these birds—their beauty and their timelessness.

Donna Schulman

Donna Schulman is a librarian, recently retired; an adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations; and a New York / New Jersey birder, sometimes distracted by dragonflies. She has reviewed over 150 books, at first on labor and women’s studies, and now on birds and nature. 

Recommended citation:

Schulman, D. 2015. At the Nexus of Bird Life and People Life [a review of The Devil’s Cormorant, by Richard J. King]. Birding 47 (1): 67.

 

 

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