The European Cormorant { Birds of Europe}

Cormorant drying its wings

Source

Introduction

Cormorants belong to the order of birds known as the Pelcaniformes and the family Phalacrocoracidae within that order. They are placed in the genus Phalacrocorax which derives from the Greek Phalakros,meaning bald+ Korax meaning a Raven. The specific name of carbo is from Latin and indicates charcoal. In the UK they are on the Green list of conservation concern {no current concerns} with an estimated population of 8,400 pairs in summer and 35,000 individuals in winter,.In Ireland they are placed on the Amber list due to localized breeding populations. {source BTO} 2014.

In Europe they are not a bird of conservation concern with an estimated population of between 275,000-and 310,000 pairs in summer. These populations vary from country to country and there follows some selected examples.

In Azerbayan the population is estimated between 2,000 and 4,000 Breeding Pairs {BP}, Belgium 980 and 1,000 BP, Croatia 2,000-3,000,BP. France 3,500 BP, Germany, 16,800 BP, Holland 18,400-19,500 BP, Poland 12,500 BP, Russia 35,000-60,000 BP,Sweden 25,000-26,000 BP and Ukraine 65,000-75,000 BP. { Source Birdlife} 2014.

They breed in north west Europe,local in South Eurasia,Australia and north east North America. Winters in Africa,south Asia and south to south east United States.

The Gaelic name for the bird is Sgarbh. The Welsh is Mulfran, the Irish,is Brogheall and Croatian is Kormoran.

Little Cormorant P.niger

Taken in Hyderabad India
Taken in Hyderabad India | Source

Red Legged Cormorant P.gaimardi, has beautiful colouring.

Taken in Argentina.
Taken in Argentina. | Source

What are Cormorants ?

The Family Phalacrocoracidae is represented by about forty species of Cormorants and related Shags. Due to recent clarifications of the family which have been proposed it is difficult to clarify the correct number of genera. No consistent distinction exists between Cormorants and Shags. The names of Cormorant and Shag were originally the common names of the two species of the family that occurred in the UK.

Our subject Phalcrocorax carbo { Now referred to as the Great Cormorant} and P.aristotelis the European Shag, The word Shag alludes to the birds Crest which in the UK the Great Cormorant lacks.

They are medium to large sea birds ranging in size from the Pygmy Cormorant, P.pygmaeus,eighteen inches long, south east Europe and south west Asia} to the flightless Cormorant P.harrisi { Galapagos Islands}. They are coastal rather than ocean going birds and may colonize inland waters.

They are excellent at catching fish. Indeed in China they were trained by fishermen to do just that,with great success. However, it is not as common today as in former times with more efficient ways of catching fish have been developed. The Cormorant is adaptable and feed in the open sea,in quiet estuaries and in lakes and rivers. It feeds in either salt or fresh water.

It nests in trees as well as on cliffs .Conversely the Shag only nests on cliffs and feeds in salt water.

Here we review the Great Cormorant which occurs across the northern Hemisphere with sub-species occurring in the southern hemisphere. In North America they occur on the eastern Seaboard,though it only breeds in the north of its range,in the Canadian Maritime Provinces. As always we commence with a description of the species under review.

Great Cormorant and habitat

Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland . Richard Crossley
Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland . Richard Crossley | Source

Description of the Great Cormorant

In its winter plumage the mature Cormorant is a magnificent bird {the plumage is the same for both sexes}. The upper surface is a deep black,glossed with bronze.,each further margined by a darker metallic border, and the back generally presenting rich metallic green or purple reflections,varying with the incidence of light,and the position of the eye.

The wings and tail,in which there are fourteen feathers,are also black,washed with metallic green. The throat,and sides of the neck,the breast and belly are a deep glossy purplish black,washed with metallic green.

The bill more or less a dark horn colour.The legs and feet are black.The bare skin of the face and throat,and base of the bill greenish yellow. The eyes are a rich sparkling bronzy green.

In early spring the birds begin to add ,without a moult, to their already splendid plumage,the breeding adornments of a large white patch on each thigh and a number of beautiful elongated white feathers on the top of the head and along both sides of the neck, these however are cast again as soon as thier home is established and sometimes before nesting time.

Yarrell, gives the following account of an old Cormorant kept in the garden of the Royal Zoological Society regent's park,London,with reference to changes of its plumage,incident, to the approach of summer.

" Some white feathers on the side of the head and neck began to appear on the fourth of January,1832,and arrived at their greatest perfection by the twenty sixth of February. they remained in that state until the second of April when they began gradually to disappear,and by the thirteenth of May where wholly lost,having been fifty four days arriving at perfection,making together a period of eighteen weeks. "

" These white feathers are new ones much longer than the black feathers of the same part,rounded in form ,and in some degree resembling bristles. Some white feathers began to appear on the thighs of the same bird on the twenty fifth of January and the patch was completed in five weeks. These white feathers began to disappear about the sixteenth of June and by the twentieth of July were almost entirely gone"

Double crested Cormorant Courtesy of Residentaid Standard youtube license . http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=az3P8Y31gBs

General and Historical information

Morris ' A History of Birds', 1862-1867, recalls Mr.John Dutton R.N, favoured him with some particulars of this bird. He says " They always dip their wings in the water on first taking flight from their resting places. They often collect in parties of thirty or forty and occasionally in very large numbers,more than a thousand having been seen together at one time .On land they are dull and heavy. They are only seen to advantage on the water. They roost indiscriminately on rocks or high trees,houses and other buildings, posts,or logs floating in the water,and may often be noticed perched on a rail or withered tree by the water side. They now and then follow the course of a river for several miles inland,both by flight and by swimming"

Under the heading 'Sporting by Steam', a curious circumstance is related in the Zoologist' by the Rev.G.Gordon, of one of these birds having been struck down and killed by the funnel of the engine of an express train,as it was crossing the Loch of Spynie,in Elginshire, on the twentieth of September, 1852. it had a Flounder,ten inches long in its bill at the time and both bird and fish were taken up.

Nothing is more interesting than to see a Cormorant fishing as he does so well. He swims perfectly and dives equally well. They tend to swim long and low in the water and are quick for the size of the bird. Even on calm water its feet below the surface are never still and its upright head is constantly on the look out. When it dives it invariably resurfaces with a fish that it has expertly procured.

These birds have been observed attempting to swallow a fish or Eel,or other too large to be got down at once,sometimes as much as half an hour is passed in the attempt, before a successful outcome is achieved, as at last the fish goes down,and always head first.

Montague, notes, " if by any chance a large fish sticks in the gullet,it has the power of inflating that part to its utmost,and while in that state the head and neck are shaken violently, in order to promote its passage."

Great Cormorant fishing. Courtesy of Orgb0 Standard Youtube License. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPstb-QV5YA

Captivity,Cormorant and Man

According to Butler {1896}, The Cormorant,though a tough and shy bird and naturally wary is, when taken young, easily tamed and does well in captivity,and will reward kindly treatment with much affection. " It is an intelligent bird and has been for centuries employed by the Chinese to fish for them,a strap being tied round the neck when the birds are so engaged,to prevent them from swallowing their captures."

He goes on to add," This practice was introduced to England in the reign of Charles the first and became a 'royal sport'. In charge was a 'Master of Cormorants', a high office of the household,but it gradually fell out of favour."

The pastime was revived for a while by Mr. Salvin,a well known Falconer,who kept a number of birds and has described,in the 'Field Magazine' 'for 1890,how to train Cormorants to fish properly he made the following notes--

" You must first put on a fencing mask,ear lappets and gloves to prevent their biting,and attach noose jesses to their legs for the purpose of pulling them down and taking them up from the ground,all of which helps to tame them,especially if long drills are given them during the morning and evening. Cormorants necks being very being strong and elastic, these birds may well be handled by the neck without jerking or roughness. When sufficiently tame you can begin to teach them. For which end you put a small one buckled strap on their necks,which not be buckled to tight,and having supplied a large deep tank with water and fish,you put the birds in and entice them to fish. They are then rewarded by removing the strap and giving them a bit of fish."

" These lessons,especially with the example of an old hand or 'make bird',will soon get them ready for the brook or pond. they will go at any sort of fish,but Perch are apt to hurt them with their large dorsal fins,unless they have their straps off. If there are no fish in the place where you are 'drawing' they will let you know by flapping their wings. To make young birds hold fish,strap all your birds and give one a fish of some size and you will find it will keep it down to prevent being robbed by others."

" The best way of keeping trained Cormorants,is to place large stones in a yard littered with straw,and supplied with a bath,for they wash after feeding. From this yard there should be a warm,open shed,also supplied with large stones for them to sit upon if they wish to retire. This place must be either walled in or fenced in,with upright palings, for I have found that,otherwise, they can pull themselves up with their bills in a Parrot like fashion,and so get out. They should be fed once a day,allowing them a 'full gorge' on Saturdays, occasionally when you are not working them,for when you are using them,they require to be underfed."

The Cormorant lives to a good age. A bird belonging to Mr. Salvin, is on record as being the age of twenty three years,and was the progenitor of the first Cormorant bred in captivity in England. Morris 'History of Birds'1867, conveys that young Cormorants become perfectly tame. Montague mentions one which never seemed so happy as when permitted to remain by the side of his master.


Chinesse fisherman with Cormorants.

Source

Cormorant taken in Japan

Taken in Hyoga Japan
Taken in Hyoga Japan | Source

Breeding, nest and eggs

H.Seebohm,mentions an interesting colony of Cormorants on trees,which he saw on an island in Lough Cooter,near Gort in the south of Galway {Ireland}. It was ten miles from the sea and there were fifty nests built in lofty trees. If the country is flat and devoid of trees in a locality the birds have chosen,they will readily place their nest on the ground,in Pollard Willows, in low bushes

Sir Walter Butler has recorded them in New Zealand, nesting in swamp tussocks, " just above the surface of the water"

The Cormorant which invariably nests in colonies, forms when it builds near the sea a nest of Seaweed from one to three feet high and only slightly hollowed out and lined with green leaves that it collects from the vicinity.When they build upon the ground or in trees in inland situations the structure consists of piles of sticks and reeds with green grass added to, from year to year, till it attains the height of several feet.

Extensive areas or patches on and beneath the rocks of greenish white excrement { which is fatal to all vegetation coming into contact with it} and its disgusting odour,mingled with that of decaying regurgitated fragments of fish,that exclusively forms their diet, invariably localize the site of a Cormorant colony.

The date of the nesting varies somewhat with the seasonal weather, but as a rule they begin to construct or refurbish their nests during April and have generally completed laying by the end of May,or before the middle of June at the latest.

The eggs which are small in proportion to the size of the bird are of an elongated shape and number three to four. They are white, of a soft but rough chalky texture. They are a pale greenish blue in ground colour which may only be seen when the eggs are freshly laid, before they become covered,as they soon do, with excrement and dirt.

Both parents incubate the eggs for a period of about twenty eight to thirty one days. The young squabs which are born with sealed eyelids have a bluish-black naked body, brown feet and horn coloured beaks. Their parents then assume separate duties. The female covers and protects her brood,while the male fetches food for both his mate and the young, each of whom in turn thrusting their heads right down into its gullet,seizes the half digested morsels as he disgorges them.

When the young are able to fly and to fend and forage for themselves,which is as soon as they can fly,they are escorted to the sea by their parents,and then left to their own resources. This is when they are about a month old.

After the first moult the young Cormorants are brownish-black, slightly washed with green above,and dirty white beneath,with flesh coloured bills and dark brown feet. After the autumn moult,when the birds are about a little over a year old,more of the metallic sheen, which will mark their maturity,appears on the upper surface and the white on the underside becomes less. After one or perhaps two more moults the latter gives way to black,glossed with a splendid metallic green.

Diving for food

Morro Bay USA.
Morro Bay USA. | Source

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4 comments

D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 23 months ago from Lancashire north west England Author

aviannovice,

Hi Deb,it is sad,and we have the same problem over here as well. Thank you for the visit it is appreciated. Best wishes to you.


aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 23 months ago from Stillwater, OK

These are one of my favorite birds. They have seen much persecution in the US, being blamed for taking all the fish out of assorted waters. How sad is that?


D.A.L. profile image

D.A.L. 23 months ago from Lancashire north west England Author

DDE,

Hello Devika, I have some catching up to do myself after the busy holiday period. Thank you as always for your encouraging comments and all your votes you are very kind. Best wishes to you..


DDE profile image

DDE 23 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

Great write up here. I have not commented on many hubs. I don't know why I did not receive any email notifications. I am trying to catch up with reading and commenting on all missed hubs. I always enjoy reading about different birds. Voted up, interesting, useful and beautiful.

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