For the Birds Radio Program: Double-crested Cormorant

Original Air Date: Aug. 24, 1989

Cormorants, voracious fish eaters, are not a very good choice as a pet. Reworked from 1988

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Last year I received a letter from a couple of listeners who noted that Double-crested Cormorants were spending the summer in lakes in downtown Virginia. I wonder if they’re back this year? 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 any 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, it nests 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 horror novel by Stephen Gregory. 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. The novel, entitled, appropriately enough, The Cormorant, is short and terrifying, rivaling Stephen King in its terrifying climax. Real cormorants are hardly evil, but after reading The Cormorant, you’ll never be tempted to get one for a pet.

(Recording of a Double-crested Cormorant)

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