For the Birds Radio Program: Double-crested Cormorant

Original Air Date: Aug. 8, 1988

More and more people are asking Laura about Double-crested Cormorants.

Duration: 3′56″


(Recording of a Double-crested Cormorant)

I recently received a letter from a couple of listeners who noted that Double-crested Cormorants are spending the summer in lakes in downtown Virginia. Although cormorants used to be abundant in Minnesota and Wisconsin until the 1950’s, their numbers declined dangerously from the 1960’s through the early 80’s, but are fortunately increasing again.

Cormorants are dark grey water birds. In flight they resemble geese, not only in size and shape but also by their tendency to fly in a line or a ‘V’. In the water they swim low, and in dim light are frequently mistaken for loons.

Ornithologists have assigned Cormorants to their own family, which is related to both the Anhingas, or snake birds, of Florida and the tropics, and the pelican family. Like anhingas, cormorants have very poorly developed oil glands. Their feathers become drenched after a few dives, so they have to sit on a rock or buoy occasionally while they hang out their wings to dry. The relationship to pelicans is indicated by the fact that both groups have naked, orange skin on their throat pouches, and webs between all four toes–a condition ornithologists call totipalmate.

Cormorants are voracious fish eaters. The word cormorant comes from the Latin corvus marinus for sea raven. Shakespeare called them “insatiate,” and fishermen have placed bounties on them in many places in the past. But cormorants don’t really compete with man’s fishing interests to a very great extent–they seem to actually prefer rough fish, like carp, to game fish. Fishermen in Japan, China, and India have domesticated them for fishing—a well-trained bird can catch 150 fish in an hour, which sure beats the record of any human fisherman I know.

In the wild, the cormorant has historically nested in huge colonies—sometimes with gulls, herons, egrets, or pelicans. In the northern parts of its range it tends to nest on rocks or cliffs, but in the more southern reaches, including spots in central Wisconsin that I know of, cormorants nest in trees. In 1922, Arthur Cleveland Bent, a businessman who, in his off hours researched and composed the most thorough set of books about North American Birds ever written, wrote about Cormorant colonies, “A populous colony often contains young birds of all ages from naked helpless chicks to full sized birds, and presents a most interesting, if not an attractive, picture. Suck a colony is the filthiest place imaginable, for no other birds can equal cormorants in this respect.” I won’t go into the specifics that Mr. Bent so graphically details in his life history account—you can take my word for it that it’s not a pretty sight.

The cormorant is also the subject of a first novel by Stephen Gregory which, according to the New York Times Book Review, is Edgar Allan Poe-like in conjuring up a feeling of horror. It tells the terrifying tale of what happens to a sweet young English couple and their small child when they inherit a nice estate from an uncle under the condition that they care for his pet cormorant—just the story for a radio birdwatcher. The novel, entitled, appropriately enough, The Cormorant, was released in May, but so far the book isn’t available at bookstores in Duluth, in spite of the fact that the New York Times Book Reviewer liked it a lot. I have it on order, but in the meantime if any listener reads it, let me know how it was.

(Recording of a Double-crested Cormorant)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”