Learning to Catch a Cormorant with your Bare Hands

By Peter Wallack (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
The Double Crested Cormorant – photo by Peter Wallack
Our plans for Labor Day weekend 2014 were pretty simple: Depart on Saturday at 4:30 am and drive 500 miles with our dog Brodie to the Great Smoky Mountains, attend a family reunion Saturday afternoon, hike and go swimming in the Smokies, shoot a roll or two of film of some waterfalls and Cades Cove, and visit with more family on Sunday, drive 500 miles home and then go to a barbecue Monday evening with friends.

The 1,000 miles on the interstate was thankfully uneventful and we made great time both ways.  We made it to the reunion on time despite a late departure.  In 2012 it was over 100 degrees at this reunion, so they moved it from July to Labor Day weekend for better weather.  It was 95.

The combination of the long ride and a couple hours in the heat exhausted Brodie, but he couldn’t sleep.  He seemed very stressed, so we focused on finding a nice place to go for a walk on Sunday morning to calm him down.  That’s when we discovered that many of America’s National Parks aren’t dog friendly.  And with good reason – but we had never taken our dogs to a National Park, so this was news to us.  Pretty much none of the trails or park areas in the Smoky Mountain National Park permit dogs.  So with neither Brodie or my wife getting any sleep on Saturday night, and our plans for Sunday being shot, we decided to turn back around less than 24 hours after arriving and head for home.

We head to the grocery store after a much needed full night’s sleep, and as we near the store my wife points to our left and say’s “Hey look, a turkey!”  I turn to see an ungainly bird carrying it’s wings half open hopping into the north-bound lanes of US Route 19.  Then it stops – right in the path of oncoming traffic.

As cars stop and honk their horns, it eventually weaves between it’s 4-wheeled tormentors into the south-bound lanes.  My wife asks if we should try to help it.  So I pull the car into the left-turn lane, and she hops out to try to shoo it off the highway.  Several hundred yards later, she has only managed to send the cormorant farther northward against the oncoming traffic.

After making an illegal u-turn, I’m greeted by another car with two women thanking us for trying to help the bird, and they join with their car to shield us and the bird from traffic.  This cormorant doesn’t appear hurt, but it seems obvious he can’t fly.  He eventually stops hopping away from us as we get him surrounded and turn to defend himself with his slender beak – and I notice a spear-like downturned point on the end of it as he takes a stab at my shoes.

Another man shows up and reaches in and grabs the cormorant by the neck and scoops him up.  We carry him to the edge of the woods, and the drama seems to have ended.  I say thanks, and then we look as the cormorant is headed back to towards the road.  He says “What can you do” and get in his truck and drives away.  My wife and I discuss what to do with the ladies in the car as the cormorant jumps into a large muddle puddle and starts to swim around.  It’s obvious we need to get this guy to Canonsburg Lake!

We try one more time – unsuccessfully  – to reach PA Fish and Game.  So one of the ladies calls 911.  My wife says “It’s not really an emergency.”  Let’s see, we have two people running around on a 4-lane highway chasing what looks like a large, goofy duck weaving in and around oncoming traffic, with cars parked on either side of the road with hazard flashers blinking.  I think it’s OK to call the local police at this point….

Before she finishes the call, a patrol car shows up.  Someone else probably already reported us!  As the officer pulls off the road near the cormorant, the  bird apparently decides he doesn’t want to risk getting involved with the police and decides to make a slow, hopping run for it back into the south-bound traffic.  I look at the officer, and say “I’m going to go catch him – and then you can drive me to the lake to release him.”

He looks at me like I’m a little nuts, but says “Ummm… O.K.”  So my wife and I step into traffic again – as the cop stands off the side of the road, no lights flashing, and watches us – and we eventually get the cormorant to pause to defend himself in front of a stopped pickup truck.  After he takes a stab at my ankle, I lunge for his neck and scoop him up.  He only tries to fight back when he thinks he can each my face with his beak, so there were only a couple close calls.

The officer squeezes me into the back of the car, holding the bird, and drives me to Canonsburg Lake as he calls in the update.  We’re followed by another police vehicle – slow day on Labor Day in Peters Township I guess – and eventually I’m let out of the car to release the scared cormorant into the lake.  As I step out, the officer says “Make sure you come back so I can get your information for my report.”  Like I’m going to make a break for it into the lake with my feathered friend or something.

I walk to the edge of the lake – with about half a dozen fishermen staring open mouthed at the scene – to release the bird.   He hit the water like a giant fish!  As I released him, he dove deep, kicking up a trail of bubbles for about 20 feet, until he eventually surfaced.  It seemed like he turned to look at me – not to say thanks, but to make sure I wasn’t still following him.

He appeared to have no problems swimming, so hopefully he can recover and be able to fly off with the other cormorants to wherever they go this winter.  Cormorants are apparently plentiful on Lake Erie and the Susquehanna River in eastern Pennsylvania, but they’re uncommon in our area.  While the method of grabbing his neck just below his head worked, I later learned the preferred way to capture and cormorant, pelican, or loon is to grab the beak immediately after they snap at you, then wrap the head and body in a towel to secure them.

It’s times like this that I think everything happens for a reason.  Scores of vehicles drove past and at least made an effort not to hit the bird, but my wife and these two other women were distressed by the thought of what could happen to this ugly, clumsy little guy.  We should have been on the highway instead of going to the grocery store.  But we made a difference for this one bird.  And we made a memory for ourselves in the process.  I just wish I had my camera!




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