Be Careful what you wish for!
In the avian world, those talented and industrious birds that can gather the most fish and feed their young are the ones who survive and pass on their genes. It has been so ever since the birds evolved from the dinosaurs that roamed this earth some 63 million years ago.
We thought of this as we were sitting upon our lanai, in sunny Florida, one afternoon. We watched a curious dark bird dive time after time beneath the surface of the small pond in front of us, hunting for fish.
“I wonder how they do that?” I asked my wife Mary.
“Most of the birds have oil glands in their feathers that keep them dry and afloat, don't they” I asked rhetorically.
After a time, the bird sat on the far shore of the small pond and spread its wings in the sun. He stood there for considerable time before we realized that he was drying his feathers off so that he could fly.
“And they must have to dry off their feathers before they are able to fly again.” I reasoned.
“I wonder how that whole evolutionary process came about?”
Curiosity driven, we researched the history of this sleek black bird with the long black neck and ebony feathers. The bird book that we had secured told us that the creature we had watched was a Great Cormorant. It has a colorful history as a fisher bird through out the world. In some countries, a slight rope is tied around the bird's neck. It would dive to the depths on a tether and catch a fish. The rope restricted its swallowing ability and the fishermen were able to make the bird surrender the fish to them. They had a magnificent fishing machine on their hands, engineered by nature, to feed them any time they needed sustenance.
In some of our Native American cultures the Cormorant had taken on a mystical status. The Calusa Tribe of Southwest Florida, for the last 1,000 years, existed principally on shells and the fruits of the sea that they gathered from the bountiful Gulf of Mexico. They thought that such a magnificent fishing machine, like the Great Cormorant, was a gift from the Great Spirit to them. It was mystical gift that the gods have given them to feed themselves when the seas were stingy with their bounty.
As with most of their legends, a myth evolved regarding this treasured bird. In the Calusa lore, the great cormorant had once been like all other birds. It had oil glands spread through its feathers to insulate the bird from the cold sea and keep it afloat on the salted sea. The cormorant, like the pelican and all other birds, did its best to reach into the shallow waters and retrieve small fish for its survival. But there was one Cormorant who was both craftier and more skilled at fishing that the others. He had learned that if he swallowed the sap of the Cyprus root, the liquid would clog his oil ducts and his bird body would then be able to slide deeper into the sea and return a much bigger harvest of fish. The industrious cormorant used the Cyprus root daily to haul in larger and larger stocks of fish to feed his many smaller dependants.
The cormorant never really tried to fly away after fishing, so the wet feathers and their inability to achieve flight were never a problem. The other birds observed the successful catch of fish and envied the great cormorant. They couldn't find out how or why he was able to slide deeper in the water and haul in so many fish. The cormorant just kept his secret to himself and enjoyed his bounty.
What he didn't know was that the Great Spirit, who the Calusa believed ruled all things in nature, had seen his deception and disapproved. There was an order to his realm and the great one did not take kindly to those who flaunted his system. The fish in the sea were also his creation and he thought that all birds should take only what they needed to survive and allow the fish to prosper as well.
One day a gaggle of other birds came upon the cormorant and asked him for the secret of his catch.
“The Great Spirit has given me the ability to fish better than you” he crowed. “Maybe you had better be more attentive to him.”
The other birds were flabbergasted. No one spoke openly of the Great Spirit. And none dared to invoke his favor. Some things were just not done.
“And how are you able to dive so deep?” one asked the cormorant.
“Well, I just invoke the Great Spirit and ask him to dry up my oil glands before each dive,” said the cormorant.
The other birds were aghast. “But that isn't natural” one cried. “We need those oil glands to keep us dry and ready for flight when predators threaten.”
“Well, I don't” said the defiant cormorant. “I can get by without them well enough.”
Word of this boasting made its way back to the spirits of nature.
“As he wishes, so it shall be” they declared. And thereafter all of the cormorant's oil ducts were removed from his feathers in a flash. So too were those of his children and those who came after them for generations afterward. The spirits had decided that all things in nature must be kept in balance. The cormorant would serve as a warning to all creatures that there is a certain order to things.
From then on, cormorants were still able to dive deep into the waters and bring out fish. But afterwards, they had to stand along the shore and spread their wings for a long time to dry them before they could fly off home.
Other creatures noticed the cormorants tediously drying their wings, after diving for fish, and were reminded that you have to be careful what you wish for, even if it does seem like a good thing at the time.
And that's why today you will see the lonely great cormorant, with its glossy black feathers spread wide, sitting all alone on the shore to dry itself so that it could once again soar into the sky. These birds are still suffering for the hubris of their original boastful ancestor so many thousand years ago.
Joseph Xavier Martin