I don’t normally read books with “A Natural History” in the title; for all that I love the natural world and history, I have a hard time getting excited about the life and times of, say, a Western Blue Throated Snow Toad (which I totally made up just now). However, I’ve always liked Cormorants. Until I read this book the only thing I knew about them was that they don’t have the oil on their wings that other diving birds do. As a result they are not waterproof and have to set on a rock with their wings outstretched to dry. It’s like a living metaphor for the workaround: You may not be meant to do something, but there is always a way to do it (you just may have to look like a total prat sitting on a rock with your wings sticking out afterwards). That is a rather long-winded way of explaining why, when I was exploring the vendors at the Massachusetts Library Association meeting last year and wandered into the booth of the New England University Press, I immediately grabbed The Devil’s Cormorant off their display.
Truth be told, The Devil’s Cormorant is more than just a natural history. It is the history of the ubiquitous cormorant and mankind’s. The book is organized by month, each month is set in a different cormorant-significant geographic location. He takes you to Japan where they fish with Cormorants; this is done by tying a cord around the Cormorant’s neck so it can’t swallow fish it catches. (Although one of the fishermen points out that if it really wanted to, the cormorant could swallow the fish it’s just they have an understanding with the fishermen.) He visits the flightless cormorants of the Galapagos Islands; talks to sport fishermen on the Great Lakes who want to bomb cormorants out of existence. And no study of cormorants would be complete without a visit to the center of guano mining in the Chincha Islands off the coast of Peru, where the guano is largely produced by Guanay cormorants.
Through all of this, King keeps it a fast paced, personal and engaging narrative. By drawing the world wide connections between man and cormorant, King manages to produce an intriguing narrative of love/hate throughout history.