Friday, 11 April 2014

Book Review: The Double-Crested Cormorant

the double-breasted cormorant cover 
The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah
By Linda R. Wires
Illustrated by Barry Kent Mackay
Yale University Press, 2014

Conservation biologist Linda Wires, in an utterly remarkable new volume from Yale University Press, takes up the cause of the persecuted Phalacrocorax auritus, the double-crested cormorant, a sleek, black-plumed aquatic bird from a family thirty-five or forty species found on every continent on Earth (although the double-crested is found only in North America). “More than just an account of a maligned and persecuted animal,” Wires writes, “the cormorant’s story reflects a culture still deeply prejudiced against creatures that exist outside the boundaries of human understanding and acceptance.”

cormorants twoThe persecution she’s alluding is a deeply-ingrained cultural thing that’s almost certainly rooted in simple commerce: for almost as long as humanity has cast its nets into bays, harbors, inlets, estuaries, rivers, wetlands, and even ponds, humanity has also labored under the conviction that it has a cutthroat competitor in the double-crested cormorant. As a result, even though cormorants in ancient China and Japan were for centuries domesticated into allies by fishermen themselves, they’ve been extensively persecuted virtually everywhere else. Wires stresses throughout her book (which is an absorbing combination natural history monograph and passionate manifesto) that this persecution continues today, and she’s very insightful on the cultural roots of it all:
When observed in its conspicuous spread-winged pose, common to several cormorant species, the cormorant acquires another potent aspect. In this notably bat- or vulture-like posture, the cormorant stands still and upright with both wings held out wide from the sides of its body. In this stance, frequently taken up after fishing, birds typically orient themselves toward the sun or the wind, presumably to dry their feathers or regulate heat loss and gain; some researchers have suggested that wing spreading occurs to heat up the bird’s food and facilitate digestion. Whatever the exact reason, the mysterious stance has an eerie, evocative quality, conjuring up images of crucifixion and vampires, and has fueled impressions about the bird’s dark nature.
cormorants one“At the heart of the cormorant’s story,” she elaborates, “is the extent to which its current treatment is (or is not) based on sound science, especially relative to its management for fisheries.” No study past or present has ever demonstrated that double-crested cormorants are true rivals to any kind of commercial fishing, and yet, largely as a result of blind prejudicial momentum, near-extinction policies persist even into the 21st century. Wires lays out in detail the wrong-headed U.S. federal policies – several of which are up for renewal in June of this year – that allow for the wholesale slaughters of cormorant populations under the guise of “culling.”

The calamity of this kind of policy is leant all the more weight The Double-Crested Cormorant by Wires’s skill at describing the natural history of these birds, which are awkward on land (Wires notes their particularly their ungainly habit of hooking their beaks onto rocks and branches in order to pull themselves lurchingly forward, a sight I’ve seen and laughed at myself) but beautifully graceful in their natural underwater environment. They hunt by sight (they have flat corneas, which help in achieving a condition unknown to life-long book-readers: emmetropia, perfect vision) except when the water is too dark or turbulent, in which case they hunt by means as yet unknown. They nest in all manner of locations, and they’re doting parents. They’re deep divers, and although they’ll eat virtually any kind of fish they can catch (including some only a little smaller than themselves), they seem to prefer just the kind of smaller ‘junk’ species that are of no interest to commercial fisherman in any case.

It’s a quietly stunning double performance: Wires is equally proficient as both the Roger Tory Peterson of the double-crested cormorant and its Rachel Carson. Her preservationist advocacy is unflinching, and her nature-writing is eloquent – and the whole book is enlivened by gorgeous illustrations by Barry Kent Mackay, who not only captures the cormorant in all its moods and actions but also offers accompanying pictures of many of the cormorant’s fellow estuarine birds, including an especially ominous drawing of a bald eagle, and a haunting illustration of a great heron.

The result of all this is an important work, a benchmark popular study of a bird species that needs enlightened help in order to survive. The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah ought to be for sale in the gift shops of every national park in the United States at the very least – and from the sound of Wires’s conclusions, several copies sent to Congress might help too.

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