For the Birds Radio Program: Cormorant fishing (Re-recorded from original transcript)

Original Air Date: April 17, 2003 Rerun Dates: April 13, 2018; April 27, 2004

Using birds to catch fish is an ancient sport.

Duration: 3′20″


People in the Northland usually fish with rod and reel, but in some parts of the world people actually use a bird to catch fish—the cormorant. Our own Double-crested Cormorant is one bird that many people notice but few recognize. In flight it looks like an all-black goose, with its neck outstretched and its pointed wings beating steadily and fairly rapidly. Actually cormorants aren’t related to geese, and in the water they look more like loons. Along the shore or on a snag or buoy over the water, cormorants often sit with their wings spread open. Unlike their relatives the pelicans, cormorants have poorly developed oil glands, and after a few dives for fish, they become waterlogged unless they hang out their wings to dry for a while.

People have used cormorants for sport fishing since ancient times. The Chinese and Japanese developed it into an art. The Chinese developed their own breeds, raising the birds in big hatcheries like chickens. When the chicks were old enough to swim, they were tethered near the edge of a lake on long strings, and small dead fish were thrown into the shallow water as the trainer whistled a “dive” call. As each bird grabbed a fish, the trainer whistled the “retrieve” call and rewarded the bird.

As the birds became more experienced, they learned to fish in flocks. When they located a school of fish, they formed a circle around it and worked their way inward, grabbing fish along the way. They each wore a collar tight enough to prevent them from swallowing any of their catch—they had to return to the boat and disgorge one fish before they could go back and catch another. But the birds were given a certain amount of freedom—that was part of the sport, like underwater falconry.

Discipline was maintained through the birds themselves—if one bird dropped out of formation, the whole flock would scream and beat it with their wings until it returned, and the most dominant cormorant in the flock would sometimes beat it up. This dominant bird always sat on the bow of the boat; the other birds were lined up according to rank. And the birds brought the fish to their baskets of their own accord.

The Dutch introduced Cormorant fishing to the rest of Europe in the 16th century. Henry IV and Louis XIII both played at it—Louis even had a series of canals built at Fontainebleau for the sport.

Nowadays, cormorant fishing is not done commercially anymore. In Japan it’s kept up only as a tourist attraction, and the fishermen don’t maintain the highly skilled traditions of ancient times. The cormorants are kept on leash, and the fisherman chokes each bird until it coughs up the fish—not a pleasant pastime for man or bird—to say nothing of the fish.

(Recording of a Double-crested Cormorant)