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Friday, May 23, 2014

The Devil's Cormorant: A Natural History

A guest post by author Richard J. King:

Hello North Branch Nature Center,

It's an honor to write a guest blog post, and I'm looking forward to coming up to the Montpelier area next Thursday night, 7pm, May 29th, to speak about my recent book The Devil's Cormorant: A Natural History. I'll be talking a bit about the biology and behavior of these birds--as much as people would like. Do you, for instance, know why cormorants spread their wings after fishing? (Hint: It does not have to do with any deficiency in natural oils.)

My background, however, is very much in literature and environmental studies. The cormorant is a perfect case study to examine how and why we rank certain animals over others. You might be familiar with some of the controversies over cormorants on Lake Champlain and on Lake Ontario, but I suspect you haven't heard about the killing of over 11,000 individuals by state-sponsored volunteer hunters in South Carolina this winter and spring.

Now, if these were goldfinches or eagles or egrets, you would have heard about this by now. Why, exactly, do cormorants get such a bad rap or at least disinterest? Is it their color, their lack of a pretty song, the way they stand and spread their wings? Or the way that they bring a larger fish to the surface and gulp it down conspicuously in front of fishermen? I argue that it is all of these things, but also a deep cultural antipathy for these animals that goes back to the Bible, Paradise Lost, and Shakespeare.

This book is a result of over a decade of research, and I traveled all over the world to see different cormorant species in their natural habitats (there are about 40 species globally), but also to study how different cultures across time have perceived this bird.

I hope you'll come out and join me, and I look forward to a lively discussion. If you'd like I will also draw a customized cormorant in each book with watercolor pencil. I've embedded three video clips below to wet your whistle.


A video clip from the phenomenal documentary titled He Dances for His Cormorants, about a Chinese man and his family who fishes with cormorants in China. He raises cormorants from eggs; the prize fishing birds are bred like Labrador hunting dogs. 

A video clip from AFP/BBC about contemporary mining of guano off the coast of Peru. Cormorants in the nineteenth century were the primary producers of these hugely valuable commodity, and it's still harvested today. 

Imperial blue-eyed cormorants; these birds have been monitored as diving more than 400 feet below the surface!

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