Ontario’s new cormorant hunt is welcome news to anglers, hunters, and recreational boaters, as well as shoreline property owners. But for the hunt to have any real impact on mitigating the ecological mess caused by high concentrations of these fish-devouring birds, there needs to be buy-in from hunters.
So why should you hunt a bird that’s not exactly known for its edibility?
The obvious answer can be seen when you examine the damage done to the islands, shorelines, water quality, and fisheries where cormorants congregate. The less obvious answer lies in the historic nature of this decision. The province has essentially called upon its hunters to participate in what amounts to a vast ecological stewardship program, meant to keep burgeoning cormorant numbers and the accompanying destruction in check.
Not your normal waterfowl hunt
The question is how do you go about doing that? Perhaps the best person to answer the question is Larry Wickett, arguably the most experienced cormorant hunter in Ontario. A Beaverton-area resident, Wickett is the project coordinator of the Thorah Island Cormorant Control Project, which is an approved, highly coordinated cormorant culling operation that has been in effect since 2011.
His team of hunters shoot and use other methods to discourage cormorants from utilizing a 1.5-kilometre stretch of Thorah Island’s shoreline in Lake Simcoe — and they do so on behalf of the Thorah Island Ratepayer’s Association. Through carefully coordinated efforts, Wickett’s team has significantly reduced cormorant numbers and mitigated the damage inflicted on the shoreline they protect. His hunters have shot more than 4,000 birds during the span of the controlled project. Here is what he had to say about cormorant hunting.
Limit out or evict them?
Wickett’s first piece of advice is simple: the way you hunt cormorants should be determined by what you are trying to achieve. Do you want to shoot 15-bird limits? Or do you want to move them out of an area? To do the latter, shoot them at the roost and they’ll quickly move on, he says. “You won’t kill many, but they will move along after a day or two of that,” he says.
This is the quickest short-term solution to moving them out of your immediate area, but it doesn’t mean migrating birds won’t use the same areas as they pass through. Nor does it mean that birds won’t be back next year. It just means you’ve made those birds someone else’s problem.
A longer lasting and more significant ecological impact is made by drastically reducing their numbers. So, if your goal is to do this, Wickett says it is best to set up so that you intercept birds coming into or out of the roost.
“If you set up along the flight path leading back to the roost in the afternoon, you’ll get lots of shooting and put a larger dent in the local population over time,” he says. “And if you are 200 yards or more from the roost, this is less likely to cause the birds to abandon it.”
Of guns and shots
When it comes to shooting cormorants, Wickett says it is very similar to hunting diving ducks. Any 12-gauge shotgun capable of a quick followup shot and rugged enough for waterfowl hunting is a good option. Wickett prefers shot sizes #6 or larger. He switches to larger shot as the season progresses in order to penetrate heavier late-season plumage and deal with the bigger late-season birds and blustery conditions, which play havoc with patterns produced by lighter shot. “Heavier shot tends to fold these big birds better too,” he adds.
Wickett uses 23⁄4 -inch shells because he only takes high-percentage shots at closer ranges to minimize the wounding. “If you set up correctly, you are going to get a lot of shooting opportunities, so you might as well wait for the good shots,” he says. “You need to keep your shots under 40 yards for clean kills.”
Wickett also advises to target only one bird per pass. “If that bird is hit, you need to make sure it’s dead when it hits the water. If not, give it a quick follow-up shot.” Otherwise, you will be chasing a bird that is very capable of subsurface escapes.
Wickett favours targeting cormorants in the afternoon as they return to the roost, partly because there is normally less boat traffic then in the area where he hunts.
He advocates using the same camo, facemasks, and concealment used for waterfowling. “At first you don’t have to try too hard, but the more they get shot at the more educated and wary they get.” Educated birds react to hunting pressure by avoiding boats and shorelines and Wickett says too much hunting pressure could cause them to change local and migratory routes to places that are off limits to hunters, such as harbours.
This is why he says hunters need to scout continually and be mobile. Winds also influence their movement and where to set up. He prefers an inshore wind because it makes bird retrieval and shell-hull recovery easier.
Wickett is a strong proponent of communicating with nearby property owners to let them know what he is doing. This, he says, keeps them from wondering what all the shooting is about and sometimes results in cooperation and tips on where to set up.
“In most cases, they are happy to see cormorants being hunted, and some might even allow you to set up on or in the water near their property,” he says.
Lastly, Wickett says that every hunter should have a disposal plan in place prior to the hunt. “A good hunt means you will have to dispose of many birds, which is not as easy as it sounds. Make sure your landfill site allows disposal of cormorants or find a place prior to the hunt where disposal can be done legally.
New hunters should know that cormorants have razor-sharp beaks — something Wickett found out the hard way when one inflicted a deep cut on his hand. For this reason, he says it is safer to pick them up by the feet. Throwing them in a boat towards a hunting partner is not a good practice either.
Recognize a roost
Cormorant roosts are obvious locations on islands, in marshes, or along shorelines where cormorants perch on trees that are dead or dying, depending on how long the roost has been established. In these places, cormorant guano is very evident on and beneath the roost trees. This kills vegetation, stains rocks, and dirties the water. Cormorants use roost trees for nesting or for drying their wings and resting while they digest their food.
Leave Fido at home
Though cormorant hunting seems like an excellent way to give a retriever more experience, Wickett advises against it. “The beak of a cormorant is razor sharp and they can really hurt a dog, especially if the bird being retrieved isn’t quite dead,” he said. Also, in places where cormorant hunting is best, water quality is frequently not great, because of accumulations of cormorant guano. “Sometimes birds fall in toxic, bacteria-ridden places where there is no current,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s the best thing for a dog.”
Double-crested cormorants have been listed as game birds. Hunters need an Outdoors Card, a small game licence, and to follow these rules:
• The season is open province-wide from September 15 to December 31.
• 15 bird daily limit.
• Hunters must use shotguns (including muzzle-loading shotguns) 10 gauge and smaller.
• Non-toxic shot must be used.
• Hunters can hunt from a motorboat as long as the motor is not running.
• Hunter orange is not required.
• Hunters must have a means of retrieving downed birds.
• Hunters must immediately retrieve a downed bird and, if alive, dispatch it.
• All other relevant, federal, provincial, and municipal laws and rules related to hunting apply.
• An extra-large salmon-style net for picking up birds.
• Seine net for picking up shells in dirty water.
• Hearing protection, because you will shoot a lot.
• Gloves if you are dealing with stagnant dirty water.
• Chest waders for retrieving birds in shallow water.
Unused birds must disposed of by:
• Delivering them to an approved waste disposal site that permits the disposal of dead animals.
• Delivering them to a disposal facility, or using the services of a licensed collector, under the Disposal of Deadstock Regulation (Ontario Regulation 105/09) made under the Food Safety and Quality Act, 2001.
• Burying it on private land owned by the hunter, or on private land occupied by the hunter with consent of the landowner.
Maintaining public support
This hunt is new to the public too. That’s why Wickett says every hunter has a responsibility to be an ambassador. Here are a few practices that will help maintain public support:
• Be aware and considerate of shoreline property owners and recreational users in the water before setting up. Maintain a safe distance.
• Pick up your shell casings.
• Do not litter.
• Communicate with shoreline property owners if possible. Let them know what you are doing and the benefits of the hunt.
• Quickly dispatch and retrieve every bird. The worst image we can present is dead cormorants washing up on shorelines.
• Remember just because you can shoot cormorants, doesn’t mean you should. Think twice before shooting near wetlands just prior to events like the opening day of waterfowl seasons or if recreational users are passing by.
• Respect private property and a landowner’s right to feel safe on their property. Set up a respectful distance away, unless given permission to hunt closer.
• Explain the benefits of the hunt to those