In defense of the baddest bird on the planet

In defense of the baddest bird on the planet

I've spent some of the week working a story about the government's plan to manage--read: kill--up to 2,000 double-crested cormorants at Leech Lake this summer. It is an interesting and complicated issue. No species of bird is so utterly despised as the cormorant. If teradactyls were to return to the planet and begin plucking toddlers from swingsets, they would still rank second to cormorant in a list of reviled winged creatures. The reason for this intense enmity? Cormorants form large colonies, they shit copiously and, most significantly, they eat lots of fish. 

In the past, cormorants were routinely referred to as "nigger birds" (an appelation that, obviously, says more about the speaker than the subject) and were widely and indiscriminately slaughtered. Both practices persist today, although to a much lesser degree.

In researching the piece, I have been struck by something that is only tangentially relevant to the current news: the elegance and vigor of the scientific literature of yesteryear. Take, for instance, Harrison Lewis's Natural History of the Double Crested Cormorant, which was first published by the Cornell University Press in 1929. Though Harrison writes as a scientist, he also writes as, well, a writer. Several passages impressed me with the clarity of thought and prose quality. In light of the current debate, his conclusion seems especially artful. 

The cormorant, Harrison wrote, "is by no means as unpleasant as it has been painted but is actually a reputable avian citizen, not without intelligence, amiability and interest." 




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