Birds – Double-Crested Cormorant

(Phalacrocorax dilophus) Called also : SHAG Length—30 to 32 inches.

Male and Female–Head, neck, lower back, and under parts glossy, iridescent black, with greenish reflections; back and wings light grayish brown, each feather edged with black. A tuft of long, thin black feathers either side of the head, extending from above the eyes to the nape of neck. Birds of the interior show some white feathers among the black ones, while Pacific coast specimens, it is said by Chamberlain, wear wholly white wedding plumes. Wedge-shaped black tail, six inches long, is composed of twelve stiff feathers. Bill longer than head, and hooked at end. Naked space around the eye; base of bill and under throat orange. Legs and feet black; all four toes connected by webs. Winter birds lack the plumes on sides of head, and show more brownish tints in plumage.

Range—North America, nesting from the Great Lakes, Minnesota, Dakota, and Nova Scotia northward; wintering in our southern States south of Illinois and Virginia.

Season—Chiefly a spring and autumn migrant, except where noted above.

Which of the cormorants it was that the Greeks called phalacrocorax, or bald raven, and is responsible for the unpronounceable name borne by the family to this day, is not now certain ; but of the thirty species named by scientists, we are at least sure it was not the double-crested cormorant which is peculiar to America. Some of the Latin peoples, thinking the bird suggests by its plumage and its voracious appetite a marine crow (corvus marinus), have given it various titles from which the English tongue has corrupted first corvorant, then cormorant, whose significance we do not always remember.

Long, serried ranks of double-crested cormorants come flying northward from the Gulf states in April, and pass along the Atlantic shores so high overhead that the amateur observer guesses they are large ducks from their habit of flight, not being able to distinguish their plumage. In the interior of the United States, as well as on the coast, they make frequent breaks in the long migration to their northern nesting grounds, when, if we are fortunate enough, we may watch their interesting hunting habits. Flying low, or just above the surface of the water, the cormorant, suddenly catching sight of a fish, dives straight after it; darts under water like a flash; pursues and captures the victim, though to do it, it must sometimes stay for a long time submerged; then reappears with the fish held tightly in its hooked beak, from which there is no escape. Before the prize is swallowed it is first tossed in the air, then as it descends head downward it lands in the sack or dilatable skin of the cormorant’s throat, there to remain in evidence from without until, partly digested, it passes on to the lower part of the bird’s stomach. After its voracious appetite has been appeased, the cormorant appears moody and glum.

On the shores of inland waters, particularly, the cormorant often seeks a distended branch of some tree overhanging the lake or river, to sit there, a sombre, meditative figure, only intent on the fish below. In “Paradise Lost,” after likening Satan to a wolf preying upon lambs in the sheepfold, Milton continues with another simile :

” Thence up he flew, and on the tree of life, The middle tree, and highest there that grew, Sat like a cormorant : yet not true life Thereby regained, but sat devising death To them who lived.”

In Milton’s day it was royal sport to go a-fishing with half domesticated, trained cormorants. A strap was fastened around the bird’s throat tight enough to keep it from swallowing its legitimate prey, but loose enough for it to take a full breath. Then it was released to furnish amusement for the royal company assembled on the shore as it darted like an arrow through the clear waters, hunted the fish out of their holes, pursued, captured them, and brought them squirming to its master’s feet. A few English noblemen still divert themselves with this mediaeval pastime, according to Professor Alfred Newton of Cam-bridge University; and it is still in vogue among the Chinese fishermen, who find the skill of the cormorants more profitable than their own. Happily these birds are well cushioned with air spaces just under the skin to break the shock when they dive from a height and strike the water. The gluttony of a cormorant has passed into a proverb. It will continue to hunt every fish in sight, day after day, for its equally greedy masters, that only whet the bird’s ravenous appetite from time to time, by removing its collar and allowing it to swallow an unenvied prize.

In some parts of the United States, but chiefly in the Bay of Fundy and beyond, the double-crested cormorants retire to nest in large companies on the ledges of cliffs along the sea, or in low bushes or bushy trees inland. The nest consists of a mass of sticks and sea-weed, and both it and its vicinity look as if they had been spattered over with whitewash, owing to the bird’s unclean habits. When the four or six eggs are first laid, they are covered over with a rough, chalky deposit that is easily rubbed off, showing a bluish-green shell beneath. The young, that are hatched blind, have not even down to cover their inky-black skin. It takes fully two years to perfect the beautiful iridescent black plumage worn by adults. For. a time the nestlings are fed with food brought up from their parents’ stomachs; and so active is the cormorant’s digestion that a fish caught by one is said to have reached a stage fit for baby food between the time the bird catches it in the water and transports it in its stomach to its adjacent nest. On shore these birds rest in an almost upright position, because their legs are set far back on their bodies, which also necessitates using the stiff tail as a prop. Doubtless this tail, that is used also as a rudder or paddle, adds to the cormorant’s extraordinary facility in swimming under water.