For the Birds: Cormorants - The Fishing Birds

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Double-crested Cormorant drying feathers
Photo by Doug Parrott

By Christine Southwick

Have you seen a large dark bird standing on a waterfront pier or in a tree at Echo Lake (or the Sammamish Slough) with its wings outstretched looking like a prehistoric relic?

That‘s a cormorant, probably a Double-crested Cormorant, the most widespread cormorant in North America.

Pelagic Cormorant
Photo by Doug Parrott

Double-crested Cormorants can be found perched along the coast, and on freshwater rivers, lakes, and large ponds. They mostly breed in colonies on small uninhabited islands. They build their stick nests high in trees, and if not on an island, in areas of flooded trees. When not breeding, they often roost in trees near where they forage.

Because these strong swimmers dive to catch their fish, their feathers can’t be completely waterproof, or they would be too buoyant. When you seem them standing with their wings outspread, they really are drying their feathers, which during our soggy winters can be quite frustrating.

Brant's Cormorant
Photo by Doug Parrott

In the Puget Sound area we have three cormorant species during migrations, the rest of the year we only have the Double-crested Cormorants. The Pelagic Cormorant is the smallest of the three breeds, and the Brant’s Cormorant is the largest. Double-crested Cormorants get their name for the two whitish tufts above their emerald eyes during the breeding season, so for the rest of the year it is a misnomer. Look for the bright orange-yellow on their face, and a kinked neck while in flight.  If you see a cormorant inland near fresh water, figure it is a Double-crested.

Double-crested Cormorants have been vilified because they eat small fish, and when there is a whole colony, they can eat quite a bit. When Echo Lake gets its yearly stocking of Rainbow trout, some cormorants have been seen to eat fish, but I talked to two fishermen who always catch legal-sized trout there every year, so the Cormorants aren’t decimating the catch.

Double-crested Cormorant flying (juvie?)
Photo by Maggie Bond

Double-crested Cormorants have been listed as the cause for reduced salmon runs in the Columbia River. Personally, I’m inclined to believe that over-fishing by fishing fleets, and global warming has more to do with that decline than the cormorants. Double-crested Cormorants have been declining on the Washington coast since 1995, probably for the same reasons that the salmon has been declining.

Cormorants catch small fish. Ospreys catch large fish. Both have a place in our environment. Both should be valued for their niches in nature.


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