Tiny Yellow Boat
By Jessica Turtle
Cormorants are a regional example of human-wildlife conflict, which refers to the interaction between wild animals and people and the resulting negative impact on people or their resources, on wild animals or their habitat.
I had the good fortune to observe the unencumbered nature of the Double-crested Cormorant from the cockpit of my kayak headed down the Saint Croix River. Just before reaching downtown Stillwater from the north, we arrived at the edge of a small island stacked with eerie trees - home to a gaggle of Heron and Cormorant. I was taken aback to equate the unearthly aesthetic to accumulated fecal matter, but a majestic discovery nevertheless.
I reviewed a study written by retired wildlife biologist Craig Faanes, who documented the Cormorant population as rare throughout the valley back in 1981. As is true for Eagles in our region, the Cormorant population made its recovery slowly, since the banning of DDT in 1972. It’s now common to see the birds perched on docks, bothering fisherman, or gathering near lakes and coastlines. My favorite spot, however, the island of eerie trees, is the best place to see them acting as they would without human interference (all except for the intermittent pieces of trash woven into their nests).
They’re truly a silly bird, by far the most gregarious, dividing their day between awkward social banter, fishing and of course resting, with more than half their day spent on the latter. So many of us could take a lesson or two from them. It’s interesting to watch a Cormorant, to watch how they spread their wings to dry their feathers, or how they ride low across the water with only their long neck sticking above the water’s surface. Just before takeoff, they stretch their neck toward the direction they intend to fly, and after touchdown, they perform a little ritual hop. From my perspective, they’re of great interest and praise.
Beyond the cockpit of my kayak, however, I can’t say people share my enthusiasm for the gangly birds. In classical literature, the word Cormorant represented greed and gluttony. Protection for the birds holds steady only because natural resource professionals recognize the ecological value of all wildlife, and Cormorants are no exception. As an upper trophic-level predator in water systems, Cormorants are useful indicators of environmental pollution and contribute to limiting invasive prey populations. Doesn’t that seem like a good thing?
It’s challenging to negotiate a balance within any human-wildlife conflict that arises. Arguably, practices have refined over the years and Cormorants are of little concern in the discussion, at least when compared to the Human-Lion conflict or the Human-Emu conflict. Yes, that’s right, the Human-Emu Conflict of 1932.
I understand it’s a tall order to manage life, to provide safety and security of animal populations, protect habitat and biodiversity, and also minimize damage to our property, yet, from the perspective of a woman floating down the river in a tiny yellow boat, a Cormorant is no enemy of mine.
United States, Congress, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, and Craig A. Faanes. “Birds of the St. Croix River Valley, Minnesota and Wisconsin.” Birds of the St. Croix River Valley, Minnesota and Wisconsin, 73rd ed., U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, 1981, pp. 1–196. North American Fauna.