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KEN KNOWLES: A bird like no other

The immature double-crested cormorant has a lighter breast and a darker belly.
The immature double-crested cormorant has a lighter breast and a darker belly. - Ken Knowles
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

 

The immature great cormorant has the reverse colouring of its double-crested cormorant cousin.
The immature great cormorant has the reverse colouring of its double-crested cormorant cousin.
What kind of bird wants its feathers to get wet? And what kind of bird seems to spend as much time regurgitating things as eating things? And it also appears to enjoy grossing people out with its virtuosic defecation.

We are both repelled and fascinated by cormorants, or shags, as they are commonly known.

They can often resemble snakes as much as birds, their long necks emerging from the water and weaving around like a cobra.

But in nature there’s a reason for everything. Cormorants eat fish, and that long, snaky neck not only helps it catch them underwater, but it can expand and twist to aid in getting them down —  the cormorant has a habit of trying to swallow fish the size of its own head.

It usually succeeds.

While most birds try to keep their feathers dry, so that they can fly, the cormorant encourages its feathers to get water-logged.

For cormorants, it’s all about catching fish: wet feathers are heavier, allowing the bird to dive and swim underwater more effectively. They swim mostly propelled by their webbed feet, but the wings come into play as well – the very wet wings.

So when the cormorant surfaces, throws back its head, and swallows the fish head-first, it then says to itself: “Oh damn, my wings are all wet, so I guess I’ll spend half the day hanging them out to dry.”

Cormorants have this attitude because they prefer not to fly anyway.

Their wings have evolved to be small and stubby, which helps them with the fishing, but makes them infrequent flyers. Like the puffins, and other stubby-winged birds, they have to work awfully hard to fly, and even then it’s not a pretty sight.

Now that we’ve talked about how they get the fish down, it’s time to delve into the fish coming back up. For starters, they regurgitate pellets of indigestible stuff, the same as do owls. They also regurgitate fish to feed their young, just like gannets and penguins.

But to see the cormorant at its best, you need to concentrate on the other end of the bird: cormorants seem to revel in their defecation.

The tail lifts (important to remember) to a jaunty angle, and great squirts of poop emerge at high pressure coating the rocks, scaring small children, and requiring extensive use of the cloning tool in Photoshop. Is there a bird photographer alive today who hasn’t cloned out guano from an otherwise lovely bird photo?

Newfoundland has two species of cormorant: the great and the double-crested. As usual, bird names don’t help you much in identifying them.

Yes, the great cormorant is bigger, but knowing that isn’t going to help you unless you happen to see the two species together. And as for the double-crested, you are rarely even able to see a single crest, let alone a double.

Fortunately, they have colour on their faces and bills that can help to distinguish them. These colours are brighter in the breeding season, because they use them like we use fancy clothes – to make ourselves attractive to the opposite sex.

Also like us, they seem to enjoy nuzzling with each other and intertwining their necks. Cormorants are even better at necking than teenagers.

So, to tell them apart, the double-crested cormorant has extensive orange on the bill and surrounding facial skin.

The great cormorant has much less orange on the bill and face but lots more white. The big white face patch on an adult great cormorant is an obvious field mark. Adult great cormorants also develop a white flank-patch in the breeding season.  By waving their wings up and down over it, the white flank patch becomes like a strobe light – the cormorant’s attempt to draw females like a moth to a flame.

Adults are one thing, but telling immature cormorants apart is a whole other kettle of fish. Here is the short version.

If the breast is whitish it’s a double-crested. If the belly is whitish it’s a great. This difference can be seen in the accompanying photos, (with the guano Photoshopped out). Note also the difference in the amount of orange on the bill and facial area.

Back in the day, the double-crested cormorant would be mainly seen in summer in Newfoundland whereas the great cormorant would be mainly found in winter, except for the few nesting colonies. Today, they can both be seen at any time of year.

Double-crested can often be seen at more inland locations (check the duck pond at Bowring Park this winter) but there are locations like Quidi Vidi Lake in St. John’s where both species feel at home. It’s a great place to test your ID skills.

In Europe and Newfoundland the cormorant is often called a shag. This name apparently derived from the crest (which you will remember hardly gets seen).

But there is a second meaning for shag that can lead to embarrassment in the more polite circles: e.g. “I had a great shag yesterday in Torbay.”

Talking about cormorants is not for the faint of heart.

This week, Ken Knowles is watching the Winging It email: wingingitone@yahoo.ca.

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