Cormorants are heavier and more intelligent-seeming than you would expect, with neck feathers that are as soft as high-end cupcake frosting. When they look at you, your first thought might be “bird, bird please don’t peck out my eyeballs.” But your second thought might be that you could see how humans formed a relationship with these magnificent creatures.
Fisherman in Yangshuo have had a long history of fishing with cormorants. They tie a snare around the bird’s necks and send them off in the water. Small fish will pass into the bird’s stomachs but larger fish get caught by the snare. As the birds return to the boat, the fisherman force the birds to regurgitate the larger fish into fishing baskets to collect their haul. It seems like it would hurt, with all the spikey fish spines, but the birds appear to take it in stride and keep returning to their master.
Cormorant fishing used to be a successful industry in China, Japan, and Korea, but now that way of life is dying and it is mostly a show that is done for tourists. In order to arrange ours, we were told to follow a woman who didn’t speak any English through a series of dark alleys, down to the river in the pitch dark of night, where we waited until the fisherman appeared. At the end of the show, we were able to hold the birds and view them up close. Animal rights concerns aside, it was an experience we feel lucky to have had.