Hierarchy of Affection

I went for a walk this morning, curious to see what the great storm that swept across the lake last evening had left in its wake. There were plenty of broken branches sheared from trees by the force of the wind or perhaps a lightening strike. Leaves littered the ground and floated on the lake.

But otherwise, it was a peaceful morning and I walked slowly, keeping an eye out for a rare bird carried off course by the winds. But, mostly, I saw cormorants.

Cormorants hang out in groups, perching on logs, rocks and the abandoned nesting platforms of red-necked grebes. In the early morning, they often sit with their wings spread wide and motionless, a good drying technique.

To me, they seem both macabre and musical and I often magine them either as warlocks or choir directors, depending on how and where a particular bird has positioned itself.

Just because they are prolific doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting and on this particular morning I took lots of photographs. Close ups of their yellow beaks, wide angles to capture their spread wings. I snapped shots of them flying low across the lake and skidding abruptly to a stop. I watched them preening their feathers and diving for breakfast.

It wasn’t until I was home and uploaded my photos that I realized I’d also photographed a dead cormorant. And that’s when I felt a twinge of guilt about the hiearchy of affection I allow myself the privilege of embracing, with birds, and, if I am honest, humans, too.

You see, when I photographed the obviously dead bird, I thought it was a red necked grebe. It was floating close to one of the nesting platforms I’ve been watching all spring and summer. I was a fair distance from the body, using my zoom lens to get a closer image. But I didn’t look at the image until I was at home.

Instead, I walked and grieved for what I was certain was a grebe, which happens to be at the top of my affection hierarchy when it comes to water fowl, surpassed only by loons. As I walked I composed a eulogy to the grebe in my head, thanking it for being my neighbour, appreciating all the joy it had brought me as I witnessed it mating, laying eggs, birthing its babies and teaching them to fish. It was a lovely lament.

And, then, I arrived home and scanned my photos. Coming to the image of the dead bird, I said (quite audibly), “Oh. It’s a cormorant.” The relief I felt that it was not a grebe was quickly nudged aside by the guilt I felt for realizing how easy it was to care more for one bird species than another.

Cormorants are a much maligned species, blamed for polluting water, decimating whole groves of trees on islands and eating too many fish. Considered a ‘hyperabundant’ species, the Ontario government allows a hunting season, during which anyone with a small game licence can shoot up to 15 birds a day. Cormorants aren’t considered good to eat; they are killed only to reduce their numbers.

I doubt the dead cormorant I witnessed was shot by a hunter. It likely died because it became tangled in fishing line or a discarded mask. Perhaps it swallowed a shard of plastic or insulation batting. It might have died of old age. I hope that’s the case.

But I doubt it.

I found myself thinking about the real dead cormorant differently than I did the imagined dead grebe. Thinking about the grebes, whom I love so much, led me to compose a lofty eulogy full of thanksgiving.

Thinking about the cormorants, whom I so take for granted, led me to consider a more sobering eulogy, one that chides me for my very human tendancy to live by a hierarchy of affection. And one that also leaves me thankful for the unexpected lesson one common cormorant had for me, even in death.