Medina Journal-Register — Back in the 1970s and 1980s I spent a lot of my weekends on the “Mighty St. Lawrence River” around the Ogdensburg area. Towards the end of these “weekend migrations” I began to notice a new bird along the River. It was a large dark bird that flew in small groups low in a straight line or ragged-V formation. The bird was a Double-crested Cormorant that was about two foot long, had a wing span of about four feet and black or dark brown plumage. Adults there had a orange colored bare skin area behind the bill, which is slightly hooked, and the throat area. The juveniles were more brownish with the underparts and throat area being lighter and the bill being orange instead of black like the adults.
Over the years this bird increased at alarming rates and became a real problem on the river and began spreading to Lake Ontario and the Niagara River. One of the problems was the their huge consumption of fish which they caught by diving under the water. Another problem was that their large nesting colonies on islands completely destroyed the vegetation due to their highly acidic body waste. These birds use, and thus destroy, the same type of areas favored by other colonial nesting birds like the great blue heron, great egrets, black-crowned night-herons, gulls and terns.
This destruction of the environment became more evident to me in recent years when I went on a few fishing trips to the Cape Vincent area of the St Lawrence. Not only were the birds everywhere but their white crap covered the islands where they nested and had eliminated all vegetation. It turned my stomach to see it and you didn’t want to get down wind of these areas.
The concern about this bird is that it consumes large amounts of fish including fish up to foot long and sometimes larger. They tell us that the average fish taken is usually less then six inches so it’s not a problem but to me this seems like it is a major problem. “Less than six inches” means they are taking a lot of our younger age class fish like perch, walleye, northern pike, bass and muskies which means down the road we are not going to be getting the adult renewal of these fish that we should. Anyone who does a lot of fishing knows that a few years of a lost “year age class” results in fewer adult fish in the future.
Another problem with this “not a problem” theory is the loss of bait fish, like minnows, which our game fish feed on. Again another negative for our game fish to reach maturity and reproduce.
Years ago when fisherman began to see the problems with these birds a group of sportsmen took matters in their own hands and destroyed a bunch of birds and nests on a large island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. Well these birds were protected (from laws long before the birds got out of control) and the authorities were going to hang these guys. These guys saw the problem and acted, not waiting for long studies and slow legislation Guess who is destroying both the birds and their nests now? Maybe too little a little too late.
These birds are very common now in our Great Lakes area, large rivers and the larger inland lakes and continue to spread and invade new waters.
The last five years I have noticed a steady increase of these cormorants in our local refuge areas. I have counted over 100 of these birds roosting in dead trees on Ringneck Marsh on the INWR and in other spots in the State Tonawanda and Oak Orchard WMA’s.
Having seen what has happened in the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario I have always been concerned about them starting to nest in our refuges. Although our refuges are not great fisheries they still provide fish for our eagles, herons and ospreys. Our refuges also provide excellent nesting habitat for the above mentioned birds and other non-fish eating birds.
Well it has finally happened, a small nesting colony of cormorants have been found on Ringneck Marsh on the INWR. At present there are only four or five nests but as we have seen before this can increase dramatically. Are there some other small nesting colonies that haven’t been found yet? How will they effect the food chain and environment here?
There are provisions for the destruction of these birds and their nests in problem areas that doesn’t seem to be working. Maybe these programs were started too late or were not aggressive enough. Maybe those sportsmen who took the initiative on that island up North years ago were right, just ahead of everyone else.
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