Tidewater Traveler - November 2009
A Fowl Culture
George W. Sellers
Looks like a duck (not quite), quacks like a duck (not exactly), walks like a duck (almost), swims like a duck (kind of); must be a duck – actually it’s a cormorant, and it is balanced on a meter-long horizontal bamboo perch. Webbed claws grip the roost, which is supported about ten inches high by two upright props. The shaggy-looking black bird is standing erect with wings spread. At a distance it is rather stately looking, posing like an eagle on the back of a quarter. A closer view reveals a rather ugly bird drying its wings in the warm September sun.
The large bird is not alone on the bamboo raft. In a deep squat with bare feet flat on the deck is an old man. The man’s Asian facial features are wrinkled and darkened by time and exposure to the elements. What teeth he retains are dark and crooked. His clothing is dirty and loose-fitting. A wide straw hat covers his head, shading his face and shoulders.
To say that his feet are flat on the deck is a little misleading. for the deck itself is not flat. The river-craft is fashioned of five bamboo shafts, each about four inches in diameter and lashed together with vines or, more accurately, thin strips of bamboo. The bamboo raft is about fifteen feet in length and each long stick is curved slightly upward fore and aft. The surface of the deck is barely above the surface of the river, and occasionally small waves lap onto the tubular deck boards.
Aside from the ugly bird and the old man, only two other items are aboard the vessel – a shallow basket and a long flat-ended paddle also fashioned from bamboo. The water is shallow, often less than a foot deep, so most of the time the paddle is used to propel the bamboo raft by poling; sometimes it is used to take soundings and determine the water’s depth.
The vessel’s two occupants are engaged in one of the oldest survival skills known to mankind – fishing. They are a team. As I watch, the old man takes the cormorant from its perch and ties a snare – a cord – loosely around the neck of the bird in order to restrict the diameter of its throat. He pitches the bird into the river, where it begins to paddle ahead of the raft. At this point it really does resemble a duck in its body shape and manner of swimming, but the long neck and pointed, instead of flat, beak clearly distinguish it as a different type of water fowl.
Almost immediately the cormorant dives its head under the surface and emerges with a small fish in its beak. The beak points to the sky and with a few gulps the fish is down the long throat and providing nourishment. A few minutes pass and the dark bird goes after another fish. This time when it emerges, the old man gently pulls the tether and draws the cormorant back onto the deck of the raft. This fish is too large to pass the restriction created by the cord around the throat, so it is removed from the bird and pitched into the basket. The cormorant is returned to the river to resume its duties.
From many years of experience on the river the old man knows how to effectively apply the throat loop – tight enough to prevent the bird from eating the larger fish and loose enough to allow the bird to enjoy the smaller fish. Thus, the fishing fowl is motivated to continue its pursuit of river prey.
This fishing drama is playing out on the crystal clear waters of the Li (lee) River east of the city of Guilin in southern China. After viewing it for myself, I read a Chinese lad’s description of the process on YouTube. “Cormorants have a friendly call: ha, ha, ha. They sound like geese, if geese could laugh. Mostly they’re quiet though, and they sit still for hours. But when it comes to fishing, they go crazy. Cormorants are fishing machines!“
From our guide I learned that Chinese fishermen take good care of their fishing fowl, giving them names and providing for their comfort when they are not on the job. When cormorants get too old to fish productively, they are still taken out on the boat and allowed to fish for themselves. When they die they are buried in a small box.
Cormorant fishing is but one of dozens of reasons to leave the beaten path followed by most tours of China. Remote from the huge cities of China, the Li River winds through some of the most breathtaking natural scenery in the world. Along the river geomorphologists will recognize rare and unusual rock formations known as karst topography, producing mountains that resemble giant gumdrops covered with lush greenery. Near the shoreline, what appear at first to be smooth gray boulders protruding above the water surface are really the backs of submerged water buffalo grazing on seaweed on the river bottom. They are sometimes under water for up to a full minute or more.
A typical cruise on the Li River departs from near Guilin city and travels one-way downstream for about four to five hours to reach a local craft market. All along the way small villages, local farmers and fishermen, wildlife and domesticated animals keep cameras clicking. A Li River cruise is a wonderful way to spend a day in the People’s Republic of China.
May all of your travels be happy and safe!
George Sellers is a Certified Travel Counselor and Accredited Cruise Counselor who operates the popular travel Web site and travel planning service SellersTravel.com. Comments or suggestions about Tidewater Traveler articles may be directed to George@SellersTravel.com.