BIRD WATCH: Taking a better look at cormorants

SOMETIMES IT FEELS like cormorants are birds that get overlooked. They aren’t small. They’re actually one of the largest birds on the water.

Perhaps it is just the double-crested cormorant that gets little attention. For most of the year, they are part of the marine scene. It’s only when their two cousins show up that some excitement is added to the picture.

Pelagic cormorants, the smallest member of the family, knows how to get attention. Once spring arrives, their breeding plumage may be black, but sunlight can bring out other hues in its feathers. This can give the bird an iridescent look.

Add to that two large white patches on its flanks, and you have a bird that gets more than its share of attention.

It isn’t that the double-crested doesn’t undergo some changes in its appearance. Most notable is the way it shows how it got its name.

Dress to impress

When there are females to impress or competition from other males to challenge, the male flares two plumes of pale feathers on either side of his head. This double crest is seldom seen, but when it is, it’s impressive. In all plumages, the double-crested has an orange throat pouch.

Brandt’s cormorant is the least known of these three, but once it is seen during the breeding season, it takes on a whole new aura. It’s as large as the double-crested and it is all black. It isn’t always easy to get a look at its smaller throat patch that is buffy-colored.

During breeding season, this throat patch (skin) is both blue and buffy. The bird also sports pale plumes on either side of its throat.

In the correct light, the feathers reflect the blue throat. Female Brandt’s cormorants find this irresistible.

Decades ago, when this column was in its infancy, my father-in-law gave me two special books for Christmas. They were published by the National Geographic Society and contained wonderful bird photos. They were also an information source I hadn’t enjoyed before.

Two volumes

The first volume was “Song and Garden Birds of North America.” Its companion was “Water, Prey and Game Birds of North America.”

The wealth of artistic, photographic and ornithological talent on the pages of these books claimed hours of my time. They were referred to over and over for information used when writing the column.

When it came to cormorants, two items were tattooed into my memory. This was when I learned that these black water birds with the long necks were sometimes called “snake birds.”

When watching them swimming, you understand why. They ride low in the water, necks stretched upward and bills tilted upward. They remind me of a water moccasin I watched swimming in a canal years ago.

A second memorable fact explained how cormorants in Japan were used by fishermen. The birds wear leashes and choke collars. When the human fisherman sees his cormorant catch a fish, he tightens the collar and prevents it from swallowing its catch. Then it becomes part of the fisherman’s daily catch.

Cormorants are probably noticed the most when they aren’t in the water. They perch on floats, docks, pilings and any available surface near water. Much of the time, they are grooming their feather or sleeping with heads tucked back over their backs.

However, if they are drying their feathers, they do get noticed. Their plumage isn’t waterproof like other marine birds.

After they have finished catching fish, they find their perch, spread their wings out to dry and go into their spread eagle pose.

Maybe cormorants do get their share of attention. They’re everywhere in this marine-oriented region.

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Joan Carson’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at P.O. Box 532, Poulsbo, WA 98370, with a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a reply. Email: [email protected].

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