In upstate New York on the evening of July 27, 1998, three men with shotguns put ashore on a guano-covered slab of limestone in eastern LakeOntario called Little Galloo Island. The men pointed their guns at dozens of duck-size black waterbirds perching on the branches of a pair of dead trees and opened fire.
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When the branches were bare, the gunmen turned and walked the half-mile length of the island, a state-owned bird sanctuary, shooting more cormorants as they went. At the far shore, they found hundreds of cormorant chicks huddled on the ground. They shot them, too, then turned and walked back across the island, killing birds they had missed.
At the same time, two others in a boat circled the island and shot birds trying to leave. They herded birds bunched in the water back toward shore. When the men on land finished shooting, they climbed into the boat and sped back across the lake to the mainland. All told, they killed some 850 birds.
Two days later, a crew from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) approached Little Galloo on a routine visit to conduct research. As they neared the island, they were met with an unusual odor. “It was a mess,” reported Russ McCullough, a DEC fisheries biologist who went ashore that day. “There were large numbers of dead birds . . . distressed chicks . . . and spent shotgun shells.” While the magnitude of the slaughter was unusual, it didn’t take the biologists completely by surprise. From the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to as far away as Poland, shifting environmental conditions have swelled cormorant populations over the past two decades. Cohabitating humans, particularly fishermen, have not been happy about it.
Take Little Galloo. In 1974, ecologists discovered a colony of 22 pairs of cormorants nesting there. By 1984, the colony had ballooned to 8,000 pairs of the large (their wingspan reaches four and a half feet), powerful, highly efficient fisheating predators. If you think of these birds as wolves in cattle country, you’ll get an idea of how the local community views them.