Nature Talks - pic1

The silhouette of a cormorant spreading out its wings.

LIKE THE PIGEON, the cormorant tends to be an underappreciated bird. On first glance, they are not particularly glamorous. Although I was surprised to see a couple of them skimming over the ocean a few days ago whose necks were white underneath, cormorants do not exhibit colorings or patterns that we tend to ooh and ahh over. There are no brightly colored stripey beaks like the puffin or bright reds of cardinals and scarlet tanagers or other songbirds. Even the loon’s black and white plumage has a striking design pattern. Like black dogs, which are documented as often overlooked at the animal shelter (adopt a black dog!), the cormorant is rather common in its plain plumage.

The birds I saw flying just above the water recently that had white under their necks were juveniles. The only other significant coloring of the two species found along the northern Atlantic — the double-crested (Phalacrocorax auritus) and the great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) — is the double-crested’s orange beak.

As for range, the double-crested cormorant is actually found practically all over the United States. Some of us who grew up on the ocean have been surprised to see cormorants inland, but they are found in any open water including lakes and ponds where, apparently, predators of these large birds are scarce.

Also, like the pigeon that everyone loves to hate (unfairly, in my opinion), cormorants have some unique characteristics that make them a fascinating breed. First off, in an unlikely turn of events, cormorant feathers are not water repellant. What a strange characteristic for a bird that spends all of its time on the water — but it actually spends little of its time in the water. They go into the water to feed and to take a bath but then they find a suitable perch to sit and hold their wings aloft letting the air and sun dry them. They do have a layer of waterproof feathers close to the skin.

David Sibley in his “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” notes that while cormorants fly in flocks and in a rough V shape like geese, they tend to “fly in untidy, wavering lines; generally much less organized than geese, and individuals often glide (geese never do).” And Sibley notes that the double-crested cormorant flies with its neck kinked. It also floats in the water with its neck and head tilted ever so slightly back like it is always trying to see something far up ahead.

The cormorant, like many birds, can swallow very large fish with the capability of expanding its esophagus as the fish visibly makes its way down the neck. Other physical characteristics of cormorants are webbed feet which propel them and hooked bills for snaring fish which they get while underwater. They have enormous wingspans that, according to Sibley, range from just over three feet to over five feet.

David Sibley’s book “The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior,” has a lot of interesting information on cormorant behavior that I did not know. They tend to nest in colonies sometimes of their own species, sometimes with other seabirds, and sometimes in colonies of thousands of pairs. The males have a fairly elaborate courtship display that includes “gargling” where they throw their head back and make “low, guttural calls.” The courtship display is performed on a nest site selected by the male bird, to which he brings nest materials to the female who actually builds the nest. Nests are typically platform nests of sticks “held together with aquatic vegetation and excrement.”

The nest is truly a “love nest,” as conception of the baby birds takes place there, if you know what I mean. Clutches average three or four eggs with one to three making it to fledgling stage. These chicks, says Sibley’s book, form small groups known as “creches,” presumably for warmth and protection. Land-based cormorants who hang around lakes and ponds instead of the ocean, build their nests on the ground on islands in the lakes or build stick nests in trees.

While cormorants in North America seem to have fairly stable populations, there are some cormorant species who have either gone extinct (one as recent as the 1950s) and others that are considered of concern. Double-crested cormorants seem to have multiple factors against them — commercial and farm fishing enterprises consider them competition, DDT decimated them in the mid-1900s although populations — according to an article by Edward S. Brinkley and Alec Humann in the Sibley behavior book — rebounded after organochlorine pesticides were banned in North America. Warmed waters from El Niño reduce cormorant prey and lower populations and tens of thousands have died as the result of oil spills.

This all makes me feel I should be more grateful every time I see a cormorant either on the coast or a lake!

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Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at naturetalksck@gmail.com.