Creature Feature: Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auratus

Creature Feature: Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auratus

An Ocean City Regular

Those in Ocean City and along the water throughout the Lower Shore will be familiar with the double-crested cormorant. It is a black diving water bird that eats about a pound of fish a day. It also eats crabs and other sea creatures, but its main diet is fish. The double crest is only visible when the bird is in its breeding plumage, so you may not see the two tufts of feathers on either side of the cormorant’s head while it swims in our waters.

How to tell a Cormorant

Many who watch the water see a silent black bird with a long neck pop up, look around curiously and then quickly disappear, again, without making a sound. If you look more closely, you will see an orange/yellow, featherless area extending from the hooked upper beak to the teal-colored eye and then extending around the lower beak and down the throat. If you are lucky enough to see the bird open its mouth, you will find a bright blue interior.

Specially Equipped

The cormorant’s eyes are designed to see well both above and below the water. The cormorant’s outer feathers are not waterproof. The birds will preen to spread oils to help them shed water, but there is an evolutionary advantage to having some feathers that absorb water: it makes the birds less buoyant so they can dive more easily. The downy interior feathers, closer to the body are waterproof and help keep the birds warm in cold water.

Cormorants & People Do IT: Sunbathing!

However, because the outer feathers absorb water, the cormorant must dry them. That is why you see the cormorants perched on pilings, docks, rocks and even along the shoreline with their backs to the sun and their wings outspread. While some may find this creepy, it’s no different to the way we dash out of a chilling Atlantic ocean to spread out on our beach towel or lounge chair and wait for the sun to dry us.

Culled?

image from wikipedia
image from wikimedia commons

Some believe these birds eat too many fish and should be culled. Cormorants are protected by a migratory bird treaty, however, and so cannot be killed without a license. In Japan, these birds were used by locals to catch fish for them. A string was put around the bird’s throat so when she caught a fish, she couldn’t swallow it. When she surfaced, the owner would collect the fish and send the cormorant out for another.

Look for cormorants around the inlet where the fish are plentiful and you can sit in your car, drinking a cup of coffee, and watch them do what they do best: fish. Look for their colorful heads too. From a distance, they may seem to be a boring black bird, but up close, they are spectacular.

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