White pelicans and double-crested cormorants are an interesting mix in spring along the Arkansas River and some other waterways in the state.
Pelicans are admired by most Arkansans. Cormorants are despised by many Arkansans.
They have several factors in common, however, and one is recovery from the decimation of the pesticide DDT in the middle of the last century. DDT was blamed for the decline of a number of bird species, from bald eagles on down. Pelicans and cormorants declined drastically. Then DDT was banned, and the birds bounced back.
Double-crested cormorants have recovered so well that they are nuisances to fish populations in many places, They especially are disliked by fish farmers – those who raise minnows and other forage fish as well as catfish.
In Arkansas, white pelicans are transients, passing through the state in fall on migrations to the Gulf Coast from breeding grounds in the northern Rockies then the return in early spring. Cormorants are somewhat migratory too, but many are year-round Arkansas residents, and some large groupings of nests are found in the state.
A few days ago, this writer and his frequent traveling companion watched an assembly of several hundred pelicans and cormorants at work on schooling fish, probably shad, on a backwater off the Arkansas River upstream from Little Rock.
The birds churned the water to a froth.
The group moved upstream on the backwater, apparently following the moving or fleeing concentration of fish. Pelicans and cormorants in this case were at least tolerant of each other, perhaps because they had found a plentiful food source. Bird experts say that pelicans sometimes take fish away from smaller birds, but on this day there was enough fish to go around. The pelicans appeared to grab fish close to the surface of the water, and the cormorants went below the surface to take fish.
To many Arkansans, the cormorants are "water turkeys." They sometimes catch the blame when fishermen come up empty handed on outings to a particular lake or river. Likely, the cormorant effect on largemouth bass, crappie and bream is minimal. Shad and minnows are much more plentiful and easier to catch for the birds.
Both pelicans and cormorants are protected by state and federal regulations including the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which is a bedrock of bird protection and supervising agencies. Some permits are issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the removal of cormorants where their numbers and their effect on fish are excessive. With these permits, fish farmers and state fisheries biologists can reduce the numbers of cormorants in specific locations.
There is no public hunting of cormorants.
White pelicans are big eaters. "The pelicans — its beak can hold more than its belly can," so goes the saying we’ve heard since childhood. Each bird consumes about four pounds of fish a day, bird experts tell us.
In Arkansas, that recovery from DDT’s onslaught coincided with the establishment of the McClellan-Kerry Navigation System on the Arkansas River. From sightings of a few of the big white birds in fall and spring in the early 1970s, the numbers have grown to frequent viewings of many dozens sometimes hundreds of the birds in recent years. They follow the river in Arkansas from Oklahoma to the Mississippi River then swing more to the south to the Gulf Coast.
Pelicans and cormorants have still another common trait. Their feathers are not waterproof, so after a dive into water to grab fish, they have to sit on a perch and spread wings for some air drying of feathers.
Like ‘em – the pelicans — or hate ‘em – the cormorants, sometimes – these two water bird species are contrasts to the declining numbers of many varieties of birds. White pelicans and cormorants are thriving.
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.