The cormorant’s reputation is, if nothing else, complicated. They are revered in Japan, where fishermen have used the birds under imperial protection for hundreds of years. They are reviled in Henderson Harbor, N.Y., where locals are certain the birds are responsible for a reduction in fish stocks. Their reputation in literature is hardly simpler: Scottish and Irish stories have them as disguises for witches. Even in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the great black sea birds are the manifestation of Satan himself. In The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History, Richard J. King presents an examination of the bird itself, as well as the intense reaction the animal often sparks across the globe.
If the cormorant’s place in society is complicated, its role in the ecosystem is equally unclear. The size and numbers of the bird make it an easy scapegoat in the search for blame when a fishery is impacted. The equation is often oversimplified, where cormorants + fishes = disaster, when a more accurate equation that included myriad human interactions with the birds and the environment would read more like an algebraic formula.
Surely the cormorant does little to advance its own popularity: King describes the great black wings that it spreads as it dries, and the prodigious amounts of waste it expels (often killing the trees where it nests). Perhaps the most egregious sin is its habit of diving after prey and returning to the surface to swallow it. That sounds benign enough, but the actual sight of a cormorant popping to the surface with a large, struggling fish, followed by a toss of the head and a bulge in the neck as it swallows it whole is enough to stoke fires of resentment among its detractors.
King alternates between chapters devoted to a species or issue with the fictionalized story of a single family of cormorants off the coast of New Jersey. Each segment encompasses highlights of one month, and a year passes in the course of the book, exploring the sometimes harsh realities of survival.
In chapters such as “Bering Island,” King traces the demise of the spectacled cormorant through the journals of an ocean voyage gone wrong. In 1741, the St. Peter had lost its way in uncharted waters, and the 79 men aboard were battered by storms and starvation. King uses the story of the misadventure to illustrate the records of the bird, along with other animals, that have been extinct since that period, possibly in a quest for meat. In other chapters, such as “Galapagos Islands,” King utilizes fictional accounts, such as the Kurt Vonnegut novel of the same name, to illustrate the evolution of animals such as the flightless cormorant.
King’s book is not only for those with a particular interest in the cormorant (for indeed, sales would be small in that case). What makes the book fascinating is that it examines the way one bird is woven so inextricably into mythology, biology, fisheries, and the common consciousness. In that respect, Cormorant is less about a species of bird than about a phenomenon, making it a fascinating read.
By Hugh Markey