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Ecology, conservation, and management of migratory birds

Ecology, conservation, and management of migratory birds

Birds are important in human cultures, inspiring art, technology and in some cases, are significant sources of food. Migratory birds, those that spend parts of the year in different places, present challenges in understanding their ecology and conservation because their migration across jurisdictions requires a coordinated effort to manage their populations. This is true for both rare and abundant species

Fraser holding a Leach’s storm petrel in NL

Professor Gail Fraser studies waterbirds that nest in colonies - birds that cluster together to rear their young - either by the ocean or freshwater. Over the years, she has studied a wide variety of species ranging from rare, Manx shearwaters nesting off the coast of Newfoundland, to abundant, double-crested cormorants, nesting in the Toronto Harbour.  Most people have never heard of Manx Shearwaters, a species that spends much of its time wandering the Atlantic Ocean (check out this recording if you want to hear their haunting vocalizations). In contrast, there is a wide range of opinions about double-crested cormorants (hereinafter cormorants).

Cormorants, a migratory aquatic predator, are at the center of what wildlife managers call a human- wildlife conflict. There are two main conflicts: their nesting habits kill the trees they nest in, thus modifying habitat, and they eat fish. Both conflicts have resulted in lethal control of cormorants in both U.S. and Canada at nesting and over-wintering sites. As a migratory bird, cormorants cross the border twice a year: to nest in Ontario and to over winter in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nesting double-crested cormorants

For almost 15 years, Fraser has studied double-crested cormorants at Tommy Thompson Park, an urban wilderness area in the harbour of Lake Ontario, adjacent to the city of Toronto. (See CBC Gems The Nature of Things’ Accidental Wilderness: The Leslie Street Spit). Every year, from April to September she follows a sample of nests, records when nesting began and whether birds have been successful at raising their young. The goal is to track how the birds are doing and hopefully detect significant ecological changes when they occur. The work is coordinated with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, managers of this urban wilderness.

Fraser describes Tommy Thompson Park as “home to one of the largest cormorant colonies in North America – some 14,000 pairs – which means in the world because this species is only in North America.”  Unlike most jurisdiction, the management of cormorants at Tommy Thompson Park is non-lethal (and no they don’t oil eggs either – that was just one time only behavioural study) in the Journal of Great Lakes Research. Fraser notes, “not only are we privileged to have a large dynamic colony where we can watch the changes over the years, Tommy Thompson Park – an urban wilderness – is managed by an organization that is leader in non-lethal approaches to cormorant management."

Ground nesting colony at Tommy Thompson Park

Some years Fraser supervises student projects on cormorants. MES student Bernard Taylor, examined how cormorants respond to a common form of management, egg oiling (the oil prevents eggs from developing). MES student Kristi Rudmik and Senior Honours student, Aditi Gupta looked at how the abundance of an invasive fire ant changed in response to habitat changes imparted by cormorants (it decreased). MES student Meagan McRae described how the wing-waving display (a behaviour used to advertise for prospective mates; and yes, they do wave their wings) varied with respect to tree health and nest abundance. Most recently, MES student Melina Damian sampled cormorant nests and quantified the types of anthropogenic debris there was in the nests (garbage in Lake Ontario: bungee cords, sun glasses, baseball hats, toothbrushes, plastic ballerinas – you get the picture –  have the chance of ending up in a cormorant’s nest).

Close up of a cormorant nest

Fraser is currently collaborating with artist Cole Swanson cormorants. Using art-science approaches they are tackling questions about what colours cormorants may prefer, the types of anthropogenic debris in nests, and in general working to shift the negative perceptions about cormorants. “Cole loves to think about ‘interspecies’ relations and how to best explore them through his artistic practices. And he’s as excited about cormorants as I am, so it’s wonderful collaboration."

In the summer of 2020, the Ontario government announced the introduction of a fall hunting season for double-crested cormorants.  Fraser, along with other ecologists, opposed the decision as not being grounded in science, through an open letter to the Ontario minister of natural resources and forestry. They called on the agency to provide a "science-based, detailed and peer-reviewed approach" to resolve conflicts with cormorants. (See CBC Article and  TVO interview on Open Season on Cormorants).  Fraser added, “A provincial wide hunt, with no reporting on numbers killed, will not permit coordination with the U.S. to ensure the longevity of this species. The hunt is a huge mistake and a complete mis-management of this species."

Fraser with Cole Swanson at Tommy Thompson Park. Credit: Jamie A McMillan

Fraser, not shy to controversy, also studies the environmental management of offshore oil and gas extraction. “My primary and initial motivation for this research is trying to understand the impact of the industry on seabirds in Newfoundland and Labrador. Species like Manx shearwaters, move through multiple jurisdictions, are vulnerable to oil and gas activities, such as an oil spill.” In her current SSHRC, Fraser has shifted from research on oil spills and light pollution, to work on trying to understand how parcels of ocean are initially identified in the “call for bids” process -- where companies bid for access to hydrocarbons -- to highlight how offshore oil governance practices can be strengthened to permit more public engagement. 

In addition to her research, Fraser is recognized for her teaching commitments and the inspiration she provides to her students. She has previously received the Dean’s Teaching Award confirming her dedication to teaching students through links with her own passion and research. Her teaching is focused on science-based courses using interesting case-studies (and yes, cormorant ecology is a case study) and linking them to her research to explain concepts related to conservation and ecology. Fraser concludes, "My goal is to effectively translate science to understandable public knowledge".