Quoddy Nature Notes ~ Cormorant

QUODDY NATURE NOTES

Cormorant, the birds people love to hate

There are two types of cormorants that we may see here in the Quoddy region; the Double-crested cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus, and the Great cormorant P. carbo.  Most of the more common Double-crested corms (shags) have gone south to more benign weather  by this time of year, and the less common Great cormorants, which breed further north, have come down to winter in our milder waters.  The Great cormorant generally stays in the salt water, while the Double-crested is at home in salt or fresh water.  It’s sort of difficult to tell the difference between a Double-crested cormorant and a Great cormorant, except that the Great is bigger.  The crests on the shag are only visible during the breeding season, and even then the crests are not very apparent.  When seen swimming at a distance, corms can be mistaken for diving birds like loons and grebes.  Watch the bird for a bit, and if it generally holds its beak level, it’s a loon; if it holds its beak slightly pointed up it’s a cormorant, and if it holds its beak slightly pointed down, it’s probably a Red-necked grebe, especially this time of year.  Great cormorants are found world-wide from Europe across Asia to the Pacific coast.  These are the birds some oriental people have trained to catch fish. The Great cormorants in North America breed along Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Greenland.  Double-crested cormorants are native to North America, and commonly breed here along the Eastern and Western coasts and on large lakes across North America roughly along our boundary with Canada.  It hasn’t always been that way.  Apparently cormorants were common here with the first European settlers, but Forbush, writing in 1910, noted, “…cormorants, like Oystercatchers and Eiders, were extirpated from Massachusetts.”  Nuttall, in 1903, noted that Double-crested cormorants were rather rare on the Great Lakes, and compared the scarce Great cormorant to its European relative as being  “…uncouth and gluttonous.”  And this is true.  Cormorants are black, crap all over our precious coastal rocks and EAT OUR FISH!!!  Cormorants are protected by the migratory bird act, but there are many who want a season to cull the supposedly burgeoning numbers, and saving the one pound of fish that each cormorant eats every day.  I’m not sure of the numbers in Maine, but out West in the Columbia River estuary there is a Double-crested cormorant colony that apparently harvests 20-30 million salmon smolts that come down the river annually.  Do cormorants eat other things?  They sure do.  I remember years ago, diving for lobster in Massachusetts.  I was about 25 feet down and caught a lobster, measured it, found it was too small and, being very close to where I caught it, I just reached out a little and let it go.  I sure was startled when a cormorant zipped by me like an underwater drone and snatched the lobster.  I have known lobster and crab fishermen who have caught cormorants in their traps, and there are many who insist that there are too many here.

We were personally visited by a cormorant a few years ago when one appeared on our doorstep.  Linda noted that it was probably more at home in Long Cove, so after making sure that the formidable beak and claws were covered with an old blanket, brought it down to the water and released it.  The cormorant swam off with its typical haughty continence, probably indignant that its journey on land had been interrupted, but, as I think about it, most likely its erratic behavior was a bout of lead poisoning.

So, are there too many cormorants here in Maine?  Are they part of the excess wildlife indicated in Nature Wars (Jim Sterba) and Time magazine?  I don’t know.  I do know that they are harvested for food in Iceland.  Maybe if the powers that be decide to have a season to cull their numbers we should have a recipe contest first.

Juvenile Cormorant

Juvenile Cormorant