Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Natural Curiosity

I don't know why I had never noticed them before; there were after all, hundreds, or even a thousand of them. Perhaps it was because, for once, I was in the passenger seat of the car. Without having anything on the road to demand my attention, I was at leisure to look out across the Hamilton harbour. As I looked out over the water, the sight of so many birds in the air, on the water and nesting in trees was arresting. 

I have seen plenty of gulls in my days, having grown up in Nova Scotia. The focus of my attention was rather the black birds sitting atop huge nests that filled the skeletal branches of several small dead trees. On a small man-made jetty that extended out into the harbour there were numerous colonies of these almost sinister looking birds. 

Even more bizarre was the industrial backdrop for the large flocks of birds. 

Hamilton is an industrial city, known for years as "Steel Town". Its deep harbour is notorious for its polluted waters. In recent years, the city has made efforts to clean up its reputation and its harbour, but as you can see from my pictures, the first view you get of the city as you cross the Skyway Bridge is still one of billowing smoke stakes and dark piles of coal.

How strange it is that so many birds thrive in this industrial setting! (I am not sure that I would want to subsist on fish caught in the Hamilton harbour.)

The black birds are actually double-crested cormorants. These sociable birds are the only fish-eating species commonly seen in bodies of fresh water. Nesting cormorants generally lay three to four light blue eggs which they incubate by wrapping in their webbed feet.

Considered "nuisance" birds, they have been persecuted for generations and were almost wiped out by the middle of the 20th century. Since the banning of DDT in the late 1960's however, their numbers have bounced back tremendously.

There are many reasons for the cormorants apparent lack of popularity. Large populations are seen to compete with commercial and sports fishermen. Their acidic excrement is reputed to have caused the death of trees all along the shores of the Great Lakes.

And then there is the issue of smell. Just imagine the stink that would arise from the droppings of hundreds and hundreds of birds! When we stopped to take some pictures, the stench of the ground littered with excrement, feathers and dead baby gulls was certainly an assault to the nose.

As creatures go, cormorants don't have great visual appeal. They certainly don't have the cute, cuddly allure of animals like the panda. In the air and on the water, they take on a bit of grace, but on the land they have all the awkward charms of the dodo bird (and we know what happened to the dodo).

In city of Hamilton, the cormorant population is the subject of some controversy in which the cormorants  have probably fewer friends than adversaries. There is talk of submerging nesting sites, like Farr Island, to control the population.  

As caretakers of our little planet third from the sun, it seems we are choosy about what animals and birds we respect and value.


  1. Breath taking pictures ! Beautiful, graceful birds on a fantastic tree ...

  2. Wow - that´s a LOT of birdies..! I hope you didn´t see Hitchcock lately, mwahahaha..! ;-)

  3. Love your last line. I agree. Good post with lots to think about. Fascinating pictures, too.

  4. The whole thing is just disturbing to me. I hate when we mess with nature.

  5. Incredible pictures! I find them attractive, especially in large numbers. :)

  6. I have a certain amount of admiration for any species that can thrive despite (or because of) what we humans have inflicted on the planet. The cormorants live here as well, but their numbers are not our of line. Maybe there is a predator here, or competition from too many other birds.

  7. Do you live in Hamilton? That is so darn close. I read your About and am making a guess here.

  8. Hello Jennifer girl !
    Thanks for dropping by and agreeing with the older varieties still have a lot to offer the echinacea craze! .. Kingston has the same problem with these birds .. they don't seem to have a natural preditor to keep the numbers in check .. what to do about the problem ? a tricky situation indeed!
    Joy : )

  9. Thanks for your comments everyone. Donna, I live in Huttonville which is about an 40 minutes north east of Hamilton. We often go into Hamilton on a fairly regular basis for a variety of reasons. Despite its industrial waterfront, the city does have many charms, including a thriving arts community. (It is a popular residence for artists who can no longer afford the rent in Toronto.)

  10. How sad but encouraging at the same time. Your post shows how resiliant nature can be but also how God-like humans are in our demands. If a species doesn't contribute to OUR interests, we have no problem wiping them out. But when Mother Nature strikes back, we cry foul. The irony is unmistakable.

  11. I love watching the birds. That setting is perfect for a second edition of 'The Birds'.

  12. I had no idea people considered cormorants a nuisance. My we're a funny bunch. These are my husband's favourite bird and he loves to see them sunning themselves on the shore. These birds dive for fish and to get far underwater they don't have the oil on their feathers like some other birds. They get quite wet and have to hold out their wings to dry in the sun so you generally see them wings spread up on rocks trying to catch a breeze.


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