Early October may be the best time to see cormorants in our area. These birds are common and widespread across the middle of the continent, but they are habitat specialists and concentrate in large colonies where conditions are right.
For cormorants, this means shallow water with protected nesting sites, often islands, but in much of our area just as frequently, drowned timber along rising lakes.
Devils Lake is a good example. Lake of the Woods is another. Many smaller lakes also qualify. Willow Lake in the Turtle Mountains southwest of Dunseith, N.D., has had a large nesting colony of cormorants. Once finished with nesting, cormorants take to roaming. This is especially true of young birds, which can turn up on almost any body of water, from the Red River in Grand Forks to a stock watering pond in a remote pasture.
These are double-crested cormorants, but this name is practically useless as an identification tool. It refers to small plumes that appear on the face during breeding season. Otherwise, the cormorant is a crow-sized bird, and like the crow, it is almost entirely black. Young-of-the-year show some gray or brown tones, especially on the neck and breast. The birds appear big-headed and long-necked, although this is sometimes disguised by their posture. The bill is large and conspicuously hooked at the tip, the better for catching and devouring fish.
Fish-eating has made the cormorants notorious. This species probably makes the news more frequently than any other. The latest appearance came this summer, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it would review conventions for culling cormorant colonies in an effort to protect fish populations. This effort has been ongoing but not especially effective in reducing cormorant populations for any length of time. Perhaps reducing cormorant numbers has increased fish populations, and cormorant numbers rebound because food has become more abundant. This creates a continuous cycle, what might accurately be termed a “feedback” loop.
As it happens, cormorants are uniquely equipped to survive culling, whether by man or nature. This is an adjustment to environmental conditions that may vary widely from year to year, and even from week to week. Cormorants renest if an original nest is destroyed and incubate a relatively large number of eggs in each clutch. Young cormorants mature rapidly, leaving the nest at about nine weeks of age. This reduces pressure on food supplies.
Cormorants are regarded as ungainly birds. They have some trouble becoming airborne, needing a good run into the wind to achieve liftoff. In other ways, they have a kind of elegant grace. They’re capable of sinking so that only the tops of their backs and their necks and heads are visible above the water line. Cormorants like each other’s company, so it’s not unusual to see large groups of the birds hunting together in this way.
I encountered such a group on a recent September day at Fordville Dam, which is in the northwesternmost corner of Grand Forks County. There were perhaps 50 birds arrayed across the lake. We had something in common that afternoon – the birds and I were fighting a vicious northwest wind. We chose different approaches, though. I turned my back to the wind, while the cormorants pointed their bills into it and rode the swells that the wind pushed up against them. The consequence was a formation of cormorants moving toward me.
I liked it.
Cormorants are elegant in flight, as well. They ordinarily form lines, as they do when they swim, but sometimes, they fly in chevrons, as geese do. A flock of cormorants undulates, with birds rising and relaxing as the birds move along.
Over water, cormorants usually fly close to the surface; over land, they often achieve comparatively high altitudes. I’ve seen flocks of cormorants pass over my house west of Gilby, N.D., just as I saw them passing over Grand Forks when we lived in the Riverside neighborhood on the north side of the city.
So, I have developed a fondness for cormorants, despite their notoriety. I do prefer them in fall, of course, because they aren’t massed on nesting islands. A big bunch of birds huddled together can create … a smell.
About those crests: While they are not helpful in identifying cormorants in the field, they do serve to separate the double-crested cormorant from several similar species that happen to lack the crests. This is of no concern to us in the middle of North America. The double-crested is the only cormorant occurring here. Some double-crested cormorants do nest along the continent’s coastlines, however, so if you’re looking at cormorants in, say, Newfoundland, the crests could become relevant.
Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at email@example.com.