by Kyle Sweet, Florida Master Naturalist
Certainly not the most attractive bird around the islands, the Double – crested Cormorant looks like a combination of a goose and a loon and is a relative of the frigatebird. They are a common site all around the islands as well as in both fresh and saltwater habitats throughout North America. You may know this bird best by them seemingly always standing along the edge of the water on a dock or tree limb with their wings spread out to dry. This is also a characteristic of the Anhinga. The two are similar, but the bulk of the Cormorant and the hooked bill of the Cormorant truly set it apart.
The Double – crested Cormorant forages mostly by diving from the surface of the water, where it floats low in the water with half of it’s bod exposed. In diving, they propel themselves with both their webbed feet and their wings. They forage in the mid to upper areas of the water body and can chase after their prey for up to a minute underwater, hopefully being successful and hooking their meal with the sharp hook at the tip of their bill.
They feed on all types of fish and other aquatic life that can vary widely depending on the region that they are living. Fish, crabs, frogs, salamanders and snakes round out the menu. They often forage in groups and a good catch by one can end up being a target for others wanting to get their meal too. I’ve witnessed it many times and the struggle can end up in the loss of the catch or a mad dash by the successful fisherman to the shore where it can fend off the others and enjoy it’s meal. Many fish are enjoyed along the lakebanks and fairways of your local island golf courses.
Being long-lived, the oldest known Cormorant was 22 years old, they don’t mature to breeding age until they are three years old. Once they do, they often nest in colonies and often alongside other bird species. The male works hard in courtship both in and out of the water. In the water he splashes, swims erratically and dives down bringing up weeds. Out of the water, while near the nesting site, he calls and draws attention by vibrating his wings. The nest site can vary from being on the ground to high in a tree.
The Double-crested Cormorant is one of those non-descript birds that is actually quite interesting. Next time you see one I encourage you to take a closer look with a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope. You might gain a new admiration for this common bird found all around the islands.
Four Keys to ID
• Size and Shape – Double – crested Cormorants are large waterbirds with small heads on long, kinked necks. They have thin, strong, hooked bills that are nearly half the length of the head.
• Color Pattern – Adults are brown – black with a small patch of yellow – orange skin on the face. Immatures are brown overall. During the breeding season, a small double crest of stringy black or white feather develop.
• Behavior – They float low on the surface of the water and dive to catch small fish. Often seen standing on docks, channel markers and tree limbs with their wings spread out to dry.
• Habitat – Double – crested Cormorants are the most widespread cormorant species in North America. They breed all along the Coastal U.S. as well as in freshwater inland lakes.
Cool fact – Although mostly dark and plain, the Cormorant has some quite colorful features that are worth checking out. The orange – yellow skin on the face, the striking blue-green eyes and the mouth, which is bright blue inside, can all provide a great viewing opportunity or create an interesting photograph.
Cool fact – Having less preen oil on their feathers than other birds, the Cormorants feathers get soaked rather than shedding the water like those of a duck. It’s believed that the wet feathers make it easier for Cormorants to hunt underwater, providing added agility and speed.