Cease firing at these northern invaders

Cormorants are at the center of a debate over whether they should be culled on Lake Marion. (Wade Spees/File)

BLACK'S CAMP, CROSS, S.C. - They flock here on the Santee Cooper Lakes by the thousands, especially in winter when weather is miserable up North. They have no respect for local boundaries. Their voices grate on our nerves. They gorge on seafood and defile our natural resources. They're as ugly as the Devil and stink up the place something awful.

No, it's not Damn Yankees that have the locals up in arms. That's another sore subject. It's those haughty double-crested cormorants that sport fishermen complain about. Legions of the big black birds are home to roost in cypress trees along Lakes Marion and Moultrie, the state's largest dammed reservoirs. And the shooting has already begun.

The birds weigh up to four pounds and are about the size of a common loon. But instead of emitting a melodious evening song, a cormorant sort of gargles a complaint that sounds like phalacrocorax auritus, which, of course, is its scientific name meaning "bald-headed crow with ears." Imagine that!

During mating season these beasties sport thin, white feathery eyebrows above blue eyes and an orange, crooked beak and throat. They roost just about anywhere along the Atlantic coast and inland for miles. Females lay three eggs per season, and the chicks are grown and gone in 10 weeks. Their natural predators are eagles - few and far between but coming back after near extinction. On the lakes, cormorants prefer to roost in cypress trees, upon which they dump an inordinate amount of deadly, acidic guano. Fortunately, when the birds do leave, most trees recover. The biggest concern about cormorants has to do with their eating habits. One bird consumes at least a pound of small fish a day, and it is especially fond of fingerling-size threadfin shad and blue-back herring - the favored cuisine of the world-class bass and catfish that inhabit the lakes.

Cormorants do not have as much oil in their feathers as ducks, thus making cormorants less buoyant. This allows them to dive deep, stretch out their long necks and snake along the bottom for two minutes or more. They eat tiny fish whole before they surface. For larger prey, the bird returns to the surface, sticks its head and neck out of the water, flips its victim in the air and swallows it head first to keep it from getting stuck in the throat. Chinese people love these birds. Americans do not.

Fishermen have long complained about cormorants, and last year convinced the state Legislature to declare open shooting season on the birds. At least 12,000 cormorants were confirmed kills in the first state-sanctioned slaughter in February and March, and God only knows how many more went missing in action. All the 800 or so defenders needed to murder the birds were a state hunting license and special permit, a field safety course, a functioning shotgun and as many boxes of steel-shot shells he or she could get on a boat without sinking it.

The rules of engagement were simple: 1) No bag limit. Kill as many cormorants as possible. 2) The birds taste like rotten crappie. Eat them at your own risk. 3) Retrieve all carcasses. Turn them in to authorities for incineration. 4) Leave your consciences at home. Responsible bird hunters need not apply.

The S.C. Wildlife Federation wisely called on state authorities to think twice before allowing a second assault next year. The federation notes that cormorants are listed as a protected species under federal laws and may not be as big a problem as the folks in Santee Cooper Country claim. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does allow depredation permits to be issued through the state to private landowners and public agencies when necessary, and after other non-lethal methods of shooing away the birds have failed. And therein may lie the solution.

Cormorants have been synonymous with evil for more than 6,000 years. They are listed as "unclean" in the Old Testament, and Satan is depicted as being disguised as a cormorant sitting atop the Tree of Life in John Milton's "Paradise Lost."

Two cast-iron cormorants each stand 18 feet tall with wings extended another 12 feet atop two clock towers in Liverpool, England. One of them looks inland to see which pubs are open in the port city and the other gazes out to sea in search of lonely seamen in need of love. Longtime pub dwellers swear these birds flap their giant wings every time a virgin walks across the Pier Head below. They also warn that if one flies away, Liverpool would cease to exist. Thus, each giant cormorant is chained for safekeeping to the dome upon which they stand. Somebody should tell the folks at Black's Camp about this.

It's been rumored that the four Liverpool lads who rocked the world as the band called The Beatles once considered the name Cormorants, but alas the title has since landed on a self-described "progressive black-death-tradition metal band" in San Francisco with three albums available through Blood Music. (www.cormorantmusic.com)

Having listened to their music intensely - including the band's sinister new album "Earth Diver," and its early death-metal offering "The Last Tree" - I'm convinced a live Cormorant concert at Black's Camp would drive away every offending bird in Santee Cooper Country, and never would they return.

Harassment does work, you know.

John M. Burbage is a Lowcountry writer, editor and publisher. He lives in downtown Charleston and runs a farm and wildlife refuge in Hampton County. He can be reached at jburbage@postandcourier.com.