The very much-abused cormorant

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-OrNn0bzLRI.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert Hedeen’, ‘A double-crested cormorant rests on a piling after a long underwater hunt for fish.’);

I was recently enjoying the superb vista of the Rock River from the overlook at the site of the magnificent monument to Native Americans in Lowden State Park, between Byron and Oregon. Two rather large, blackish birds with colorful faces suddenly appeared flying rapidly down the course of the river, and I recognized them immediately as double-crested cormorants.

The cormorant is rare in this part of Illinois and is on the state endangered species list with the designation of “nongame protected.” This is not the case in parts of Wisconsin, where this species has experienced a population explosion, but is protected by the federal Migratory Bird Act. A recent article in the Chicago Tribune stated that commercial and recreational fishermen in the Green Bay area were upset because of a 90 percent drop in yellow perch in the area. The disgruntled anglers were laying the blame for this on nesting cormorants in the vicinity.

Cormorants are probably the least-loved species of waterfowl, and they have been given a variety of unprintable names (I imagine the fishermen of Green Bay have added some new ones to the list). It certainly true that cormorants feed extensively on fish, but the allegation that they decimate fish populations has never been proven. Some inept anglers have also accused the osprey and bald eagle of being responsible for their lack of luck with the rod and reel.

No doubt about it, cormorants are voracious, and the term “cormorant” has been applied to gluttonous, miserly, or avaricious persons. Cormorants are ridiculed because of their awkward movements on land, their harsh croaks, and their obnoxious method of feeding their young. They have been termed inedible by those who have tried to eat them.

The double-crested cormorant (so-called because of a tuft of curly feathers on each side of the head) is by far the most common of several species of this bird found in the United States. Many of the bird’s physical characteristics and habits mark its primitive ancestry. The bird appears as if it had just escaped from a museum exhibit illustrating the Age of Reptiles. Actually it is rather closely related to the pelican.

The shag, as it is sometimes called, can be called an avian submarine because of its ability to swim and dive to depths of 100 feet or more as it chases and captures fish. The webbed feet and wings are used to swim under water, and the eyes have special adaptations for underwater vision.

Most shags winter along our southern coasts and nest in isolated areas from the Gulf to northern Canada. The aeries are built of sticks, weeds, and mud. Along the Chesapeake Bay, I have noted that frequently they don’t even bother to build a nest. Rather, they wait until early summer when ospreys have completed their nesting period and then take over the abandoned site. To confirm that cormorants were rearing their young in abandoned osprey nests, I once (at considerable risk to life and limb) climbed the superstructure of a navigational light and peeked into a nest cormorants were using. I saw what resembled three small, wriggling, greasy, rubber-like bags that I assumed were baby cormorants.

Since ancient times, cormorants in the Far East have been captured, reared, and trained to capture and return fish to their owners. A strap is placed around the bird’s lower neck to prevent it from swallowing the fish it catches and enjoying the fruits of its labor. A large quantity of fish may be stored in a pouch-like storage area in the neck. When its capacious neck is filled with fish, it returns to its master, and, after disgorging, is rewarded with a portion of the catch.

Cormorants were popular pets of the wealthy in Elizabethan England. The Master of Cormorants, in fact, was an official in the royal household.

Many people look down their noses at what they consider to be the “ugly duckling” of the waterfowl clan, but they fail to realize that few if any Canada geese, mallards, or great blue herons were ever pets of a queen and had a royal guardian to look after their needs.

Let’s hope some of the cormorants from the Green Bay area decide to move a bit south and establish residence in the Rock River Valley. Perhaps the two I saw along the river were scouts, checking out our area.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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