Mike Jacobs: Misnamed and disliked, cormorants still flourish

The double-crested cormorant is poorly named. The crests are inconspicuous, variable and worthless as field marks. The cormorant part of the name means "raven of the sea," although cormorants and ravens have little in common, beyond size and colo...

Illustration by Mike Jacobs
Illustration by Mike Jacobs

The double-crested cormorant is poorly named. The crests are inconspicuous, variable and worthless as field marks. The cormorant part of the name means "raven of the sea," although cormorants and ravens have little in common, beyond size and color. Both are large, about the size of a barnyard goose, and both are black, the raven entirely so while the cormorant has a bright yellow face. This bare spot gives rise to its Latin family name, which means "bald raven."

It's true that both ravens and cormorants occur along the world's sea coasts, but the double-crested cormorant also is an inland bird. The species is a common nester on the Great Plains. Ordinarily, it is a sociable bird, occurring in flocks and nesting in colonies. This is less true of young birds, which often strike out on their own.

It was such a bird that I saw while driving the backroads between Mayville, N.D., and our place west of Gilby, N.D. A single cormorant was fishing in the reservoir south of Logan Center, N.D., which is in the southwest corner of Grand Forks County.

I knew this for a juvenile by its plumage; although adult males and females are indistinguishable on sight, juveniles are distinctive. Their bodies are dark in color, ranging from brown to black, but their front parts, the neck and head, are mottled gray in color. This adds to the big-headed look that is characteristic of cormorants and some other diving birds, including the western grebe, a cormorant relative discussed here earlier in the summer.

Like the grebes, cormorants often swim low in the water, sometimes with the body nearly submerged and hence invisible. That leaves the neck and head above water, a habit that draws attention to the head and comparison to sticks or snakes, both entirely mistaken, since sticks don't float upright and although they are good at it, snakes don't ordinarily swim, especially with their necks held vertically.


Unlike the grebes, which are often overlooked and generally regarded as benign by humans, cormorants are reviled and have been for centuries. The Old English Dictionary cites unflattering references to cormorants dating to 1531. In fact, one definition of the word is "an insatiably greedy or rapacious person." The OED even includes "cormorous" as an adjective, defined as "insatiable as a cormorant." Thankfully, its use is obsolete, the dictionary says.

The cormorant's reputation is earned but exaggerated. No creature is insatiable; that's not possible biologically, since every creature gets its fill at some point. The problem for the cormorant is its favorite food. Cormorants eat fish almost exclusively, and cormorants in large numbers can damage the local supply of fish, a vexation to those who take fish commercially or for sport. Federal wildlife officials have proven more sympathetic to fishing humans than to fishing birds. Excessive populations of cormorants are sometimes culled.

None of this makes cormorants less watchable. These birds are interesting in almost every instance. They often nest in dead trees, such as those that line Devils Lake. Their stick nests are conspicuous. So are the birds themselves. Cormorants perch on dead branches and spread their wings to dry. This gives them an ominous, vulture-like appearance that no doubt contributes to their bad reputation. In safe places, such as islands, cormorants nest on the ground, and sometimes colonies become large enough to become noticeable not just for what they look like but what they smell like - another mark against the cormorant.

Cormorants in flight are distinctive, too, often flying in a long, undulating line. This and their overall dark color help separate them from geese in flight. Cormorants are silent in flight, passing like a black arrow through the sky. Geese on the other hand are notoriously noisy.

The double-crested cormorant occurs across the Great Plains, and it also nests on the coast of New England and eastern Canada.

The cormorant family is a complicated one; various experts put the number of species at from 25 to 40 and sometimes more. This need not concern birders in our area, where only double-crested cormorants are likely to occur.

These birds were considered rare a century ago, but no one would make that assertion today. Despite their reputation, cormorants are flourishing.

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