It is partnership between man and animal which has lasted over a millennia. A fisherman needs to catch enough fish to sell and feed himself and his family. Sometimes that means that he needs an assistant. Along the river ways of China that assistance has come from a member of the pelicaniformes order of birds – the bird we call the cormorant.
These are working animals in much the same way as dogs and horses on farms in the west with a specific role assigned to them. The major primary difference is that the cormorants are not born in to captivity. They are lured by bait and caught. The training process can then begin.
From the moment they are caught the cormorants are treated with the utmost care and attention. The fishermen keep in close contact with their birds in the first few weeks. At first they are kept in cages and the fishermen will regularly take the cormorants out, giving their heads a massage and stroking their bellies.
The birds become accustomed to living with their new friends surprisingly quickly. The birds are somewhat indulged and are cared for tenderly. The training period will last only about two weeks and the cormorants are soon fully used to their new lifestyle. The fishermen tie hemp string around their necks to allow them to bathe and during this period they are fed by hand. Soon they are ready to fish again.
In its heyday the fishermen would own up to a thirty of the birds each. They would hold the strings of the birds with their left hand and adjust them with the right in a sometimes hopeless attempt to avoid the strings getting tangled. Yet how do the fishermen ensure that the birds do not eat the fish they catch?
The secret is in the string. It is tied around the cormorant’s neck tightly enough to ensure that the bird cannot swallow the larger fish. It can, however, eat smaller fish and does so when it catches them. As well as keeping the bigger fish for the family table or the local market, the fisherman ensures that his cormorant will keep hunting fish for longer as it is still hungry. If it was allowed to eat the larger fish it would not return to the hunt once its belly was full!
The boats go out before dawn with the small boat holding the fisherman, the birds, a pole and very little more except a lamp. This serves not only to light the way but it attracts the fish. The pole is used to encourage the birds in to the water to dive for fish.
When the cormorant has resurfaced with a fish then the fisherman can bring it back to the boat, using the pool to aid it out of the water. Then the bird will regurgitate its catch (which has gone a certain way down its throat). It looks painful but it isn't at all. The relationship between the man and bird is often close. We may think it is exploitative – and we would not necessarily be wrong. Yet what relationship between man and any animal is not to one extent or another?
If you have heard about it before then the chances are that you associate fishing with cormorants with the Chinese. Although the activity predominates in this part of Asia it was also once common in Japan. In fact fishing with cormorants has been recorded as far west as Macedonia.
Of course today there are far more efficient methods of catching a fish. The cormorants are now kept as much to attract tourists as to provide a living from fishing. Yet this early morning ritual, the practice of an ancient custom, still retains an enigmatic attraction.