Oh, the French! Everybody knows Gérard de Nerval had a pet lobster, but who knew Henri Toulouse-Lautrec had a trained cormorant he would walk on a leash? “Tom” “supposedly” drank absinthe but met his (it’s hard to sex them) demise when a hunter shot him. Hunters being hunters…

Richard King’s The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History examines the cormorant, or rather multiple species of them. One species, the Spectacled, has been extinct since the 19th century, with only a few skins and bones left over; there was no image of it from life. The Chatham Shag is critically endangered. The Bank Cormorant and Pitt Shag are endangered. Ten more species are vulnerable. Four are threatened.

In the West, they birds are generally disparaged, especially by sports fishers and aquaculture industries, who can not abide competition, nor hearing about their own culpability in depleting fish stocks. They will sometimes illegally slaughter the birds to show who is boss. But mostly they depend on the feds and the states to manage, that is, kill, cormorants. It’s a little know fact that even before Trump’s thugs came in, the federal Wildlife Services program existed to kill wildlife for special interests, including recreational fishing. King cites estimates that 15-31% of the Double-crested Cormorant population had been killed legally in the seven years before his book was published (2013). Even nature advocacy groups get in on it, bemoaning the power of cormorant guano to threaten habitat for prettier birds on isolated rookeries. In Mississippi, the farmed catfish industry built ponds in the middle of the cormorant migration route, so now they blame the birds for depredating “their” fish.

Cormorants have a black reputation that goes way back: they are evil, gluttonous beasts, sea ravens. No charismatic cuteness here, but snake-like necks, Gothic wings spread. Milton called Satan a cormorant. In the 19th century, a “cormorancy” was another name for plutocracy. It’s true, these birds can be quite visible when they swallow large fish, and we hominids are particularly liable to be by influenced, even made hysterical, by spectacle. (And also by color-coding?)

In the East, cormorants, much like dragons, aren’t considered evil. But they were for a long time exploited as fishers, with rings around their necks so they couldn’t swallow their catches. In Japan, the state subsidizes this traditional fishery as kind of heritage show.

This is a good, deep look at the interface of humans and animals. As usual, the animals — as if we weren’t animals ourselves — get the short end.

“We are shooting the coal mine canary. We are poisoning the messenger. We are taking a pickax to the tip of the iceberg because this is easiest to reach,” writes King. Not the over-fishing by humans, the pollution, the habitat destruction, the dams on rivers, the climate change. King notes that he doesn’t quote many coastal fishermen in his book: they look for the birds, who tell them where the fish are. Lots of birds equal lots of fish. “It’s not smart to shoot your indicators,” says one.

Double-crested, the main species around here, showing the double crests of breeding plumage finery. And, of course, those eyes!

For those still wondering what the impeachment is all about, Walter Schaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics, explains.

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