People can once again kill cormorants

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There’s no record of cormorants in the region prior to the 20th century, but the bird has taken over many of the islands in the Great Lakes since they arrived. Image: Sunny.

By Steven Maier

Culling season is coming quickly for a controversial Great Lakes waterfowl after it received a one-year reprieve.

Control of the double-crested cormorant will return this spring when the bird returns from wintering along the Pacific, Atlantic or Gulf coasts, according to federal authorities.  Almost all culling was suspended last year after a federal judge ruled in May 2016 that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to adequately assess its impact. With that study complete, the service can again issue permits to kill cormorants to protect property, habitat, airports, fish hatcheries and other birds.

“We’re trying to balance maintaining a stable cormorant population with managing them in the place where they’re causing damage,” said Tom Cooper, a region chief for the service’s Migratory Bird Program.

The agency will issue permits to kill up to 18,270 cormorants this year in eight Midwestern states.

Those applying for a permit must submit photos of cormorant damage, how many cormorants they wish to kill and how they plan to do it, Cooper said.

It’s common to see cormorants still nesting in the trees they’ve killed. Image: USDA Wildlife Service.

Once threatened by chemical contamination, the birds have returned in dramatic numbers.

There were only 125 nesting pairs of Great Lakes cormorants in 1972. Today, there are 40,000  pairs, and they’re causing a big problem on many of the region’s islands. Cormorant colonies have degraded many island habitats, forcing other animals to move on.

Anglers know them as the bird whose numbers blew up in the 1980s after tapping into a nearly bottomless supply of the invasive alewife. They’re incredible divers and can eat one-fourth of their weight in fish each day.

And they’re public enemy number one of many perch anglers, although how many perch they eat is hotly debated, Cooper said. Many know them by a distinct calling card–acidic feces that damages cars and buildings. They also destroy vegetation, stripping trees of leaves for their nests and poisoning the ground with their guano.

Cormorants on this island in Michigan’s St. Mary’s River have degraded its vegetation. Image: Francie Cuthbert.

But activists think of them as the bird that’s faced persecution for centuries and continues to do so despite the protections they received under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. Some remember them as an environmentalists’ poster child—their DDT-malformed beaks were displayed on posters.  The deformities caused by that insecticide kept them from eating and reproducing, threatening the bird’s existence.

Cormorant management is contentious, Cooper said.

“There’s folks that are on both sides of the issue,” he said.“Our role is to balance those using the best available information.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service began to allow culls in 2003 after complaints mounted of damage done by a booming cormorant population. Cormorants threatening fish hatcheries, vegetation and other birds were often taken without a permit. The birds are either harassed or shot, but many prefer to coat their eggs in oil, asphyxiating the embryos. Cormorant mothers continue to sit on the dead eggs. The mothers otherwise often laid new eggs if they found theirs were smashed.

Young cormorants in the nest. Image: Francie Cuthbert.

Cormorant management is often done to protect shorebirds that often live alongside cormorant colonies, but researchers at the University of Minnesota found that the culls hurt some of those same species.

The team analyzed population data forco-nesters from 1976 to 2010 and watched how the colonies fared when cormorants were killed.

Black-crowned night herons nest in the undergrowth, often under cormorant nests, said Francie Cuthbert, one of the co-authors of the study, which appeared in The Journal of Wildlife Management. Culling cormorants should save their habitat from an acidic demise and boost the heron population. Instead, those populations declined when the cormorants were killed.

These researchers aren’t oiling eggs–they’re marking nests with paint to make sure they don’t double-count them. Image: Francie Cuthbert.

Egg spraying is probably the culprit, she said. Managers have to traverse the island, causing panicked heron chicks to fall out of their nest. The parents no longer care for them and they die.

For two species of gulls, the opposite is true. The Great Lakes has too many gulls already, and cormorant management makes it worse, Cuthbert said. Gulls raid empty cormorant nests–an easy-access, population-boosting food source.

“When somebody goes in to spray the eggs, the cormorants are the first to take off, and boom, they’re gone,” Cuthbert said. “They’re out sitting on the lake.”

The gulls are quick to take advantage, she said. “They’re into that cormorant colony, busting open eggs as fast as they can.”

That makes for more gulls, and another possible round of eggs from the cormorant mothers, she said.

The team couldn’t measure the effects on the Caspian tern and the American white pelican, two co-nesters of special concern for managers.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is aware of the study, Cooper said. The managers he’s spoken with are open to changing tactics, even if it means hampering efficiency by limiting egg oiling.

Cormorant and gull colonies are familiar neighbors. Image: Francie Cuthbert.

There were close to 10,000 cormorant pairs on West Sister Island in Lake Erie before the culling started in 2006, said Jason Lewis, the manager of the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in north Ohio. The cormorant colony on the island has since been cut down to 4,000 pairs.

Other nesting species on the island were struggling as the cormorants continued to grow, Lewis said. And West Sister Island is the only habitat of its kind in the western basin of Lake Erie.

“It’s not like these species have any place to go,” he said.

Harassing cormorants only hurts other birds, he said. And they couldn’t oil eggs–the cormorants on West Sister are tree-dwelling. Their go-to tool: a muted .22-caliber rifle, allowing them to shoot birds from afar and limit their disturbance.

Since culling began, the vegetation and co-nesters on the island have bounced back, Lewis said.

31 thoughts on “People can once again kill cormorants

  1. Those things were never here on the northern peninsula of nfld, it takes 4 yrs for salmon to return, so I told people to watch now in four yrs salmon be at a record low and voila it came to pass getting worse all the time, also they take all the sea run trout unless large, where u could catch 24 between a couple guys, u catch zero, 30 and forty every spring off every river, kill them all I say, every last one, even ones in the zoo

  2. They are really ramping up in the Bay of Islands area of NL the last few years. Where there used to be only a few at the pier of an oil terminal in Corner Brook, now (soon) it is standing room only!

  3. Add a limit to the waterfowl season. They need to go. Georgia is covered in those nasty things. And they show up in mass quantities when our waterfowl season is in and they are still lingering throughout the summer.

  4. I was duck hunting on an up ground reservoir in Huron county Ohio when I had a flock of over 100 Commorants land. As I watched them through binoculars dive over & over, I was surprised to see every other bird come to the surface at the same time with a small perch in their mouth. This went on for a long time.
    Imo, have an open season year round on commorants w no permit required!

  5. how do I apply for the permit? I live in north west Indiana. hunt and fish on lake Michigan. they are ruining lake michigans ecosystem.

  6. There are advantages an disadvantages, seen about 2,000 on a 20 acre lake , in Central Illinois , they must of Been migrating back up north , but those two weeks of feeding that lake changed it from being a stunted lake to a productive fishery . If there destroying there breeding habitat, I see some having to go , but Mother Nature has a way of working things out

  7. I watched one cormorant eat 7 7-10 inch perch out of the yacht club in Erie. Kill them, they could not fish in Lake Erie until zebra mussels cleared the water . There are way too many and flock can decimate shallow water spawning perch.

  8. Should have to kill a dozen to be eligible to buy a fishing license. They are not by any means an endangered species but an overpopulated problem.

  9. I’m just wondering if Ontario’s MNRF is going to allow this action and if so, when will the public be made aware of its decision ?

  10. How do you get a permit to hunt them im interested in being a part of culling them

  11. Eating the fish my children and I should b eating whose paying for license fees? Me. You should b paying me a bounty to do your job dnr. Why the long debate can you not c the facts get your head out of your ass.

  12. Finally!! As I see it these birds have no purpose what so ever . They are a perfect example of a worthless species like the Asian Carp. They need to be killed and be gone for ever. They have devastated the perch population here in the Great Lakes Les Cheneaux Islands Area. They should allow permits to any hunter and maybe an award if you bag a hundred of them!!

  13. Cormorants have devasted the Perch population on Saginaw Bay\Lake Huron. At one time Saginaw Bay was known as the “Perch fishing Capital” of the World! The impact that Cormorant has had on the economic life of Augres, Michigan is immeasurable. Motels, restaurants, & boat slip prices have been hard hit because the Perch are just about gone. No more alewives, hence no more Salmon in Lake Huron.

    The article fails to mention that the Cormorant lives 20 years & has no natural enemy. Shooting them is the only way & cheapest to control their numbers. We have upwards of 10,000 to 15,000 nesting pairs on the Small Charity Island at Point Lookout.

    More needs to be done to eradicate this bird that contributes nothing and is non native——an invasive species

    Larry Gontko
    President, Northport Marina Association

  14. If the most effective way to reduce the population is by shooting them then open fire..

  15. We need more of this common sense

    These pests eat millions and millions of young salmon every year here in Oregon

  16. If culling them during nesting season is such an issue why not let the hunters do it in the winter. Hear in North Carolina they are destroying our fish populations and polluting our islands and water. It would also be an economy booster for people guiding hunting parties.

  17. The way myself and most other resident anglers see it that grew up in the little fishing town of Sebewaing that have witnessed these non native fishery destroying birds literally take over is that we never had these nuisance birds nor do we need nor do we want them here depleting our resources and contaminating the waters and lands with their acidic dropoings! I have watched these birds fly in flocks of over 50 birds, land, dive all at once, eat in a feeding frenzy during our spring yellow perch run, and bring up and swallow hundreds of 10″-12″ perch and even northern pike as big as large as 14″ in one or two gulps and then diving again to doit again for hours two to three times a day! This is ridiculous!!! These birds need to Go!!! If they want to conserve this devastating bird in it’s native land that’s great but keep them there NOT HERE! The real reason this species of birds “migrated” here in the first place is due to it depleting it’s food source and destroying it’s nesting grounds where it came from!!! FOOD FOR THOUGHT! THANKS!

  18. I never firgure out why a bird that was brought here from some other country should ever been protected n no we can’t get rid of them we should be able to shoot all of them we can

  19. Why not let duck hunters shoot them? Put a 15 bird daily limit on them like coots

  20. We need to protect our spawning native fishes from this migratory scourge! This year, with spring coming late, the western Lake Michigan migration will be delayed and stop at the Bays de Noc, just when our perch are spawnkng and the DNR is planting fish!

  21. Sell a stamp that allows duck hunters to control them! We would gladly reduce their numbers while making the state some money rather than spending money to pay someone to oil the eggs.

  22. I think they should be put on the small game list and let somebody find a good recipe for them.

  23. Yes! A return to common sense. Oiling eggs is a waste of time and money, and as shown here, hurts some other species and helps already overpopulated gulls. Figure out a number where their impacts on island vegetation and important prey fish and game fish will be minimal, and shoot ’em down to goal quickly.

  24. They gotta go! kill them all. They are an invasive species that ruin the ecosystem they have invaded. I can’t think of a single benefit they provide. kill them all.

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