Birding: A Run-in with Double-crested Cormorants

In Birds, Uncategorized by couchiching

Cormorants are anything but a pretty bird. They are one of the oldest bird species, and there are about thirty species in North America.

The image in my mind was engraved there fifteen years ago!

It had been a rather cold, rainy, late September day on Peele Island.  My wife, Bonnie and I had made the trip to Point Peele the day before and had spent the day watching migrating songbirds.  Our plan was to spend the following day investigating Peele Island, a new venue for us. We had not seen much. Most of the birds had departed and headed across Lake Erie to the beckoning warmer climes of the southern U.S and Central America. So we decided to head back to the ferry, load the car and head upstairs to the heated deck and grab a hot drink.  We were first on board, the choice of seats was ours alone-deciding to take two near the window so we could look out at the lake rather than the cars positioning to take their turn on the ramp.

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As I took my first glimpse out the window, I was taken aback by a flock of large black birds, at least a city block wide, just beginning to pass by the boat– the flock was still passing by 20 minutes later when the boat set sail. It looked like a black undulating blanket floating some 10-12 feet above the waves.  Hundreds of thousands of one of the most hated birds in all of North America–the Double-crested Cormorant!

Double-crested Cormorants are anything but a pretty birdThey are prehistoric in looks and age, one of oldest bird species at about two million years.  Painted images of them have been found in ancient North American caves and Egyptian tombs.  There are about thirty Cormorant species throughout the world, the Double-crested are the only species in North America.

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They are prehistoric in looks and

age, one of oldest bird species

at about two million years.

Painted images of them have

been found in ancient

North American caves

and Egyptian tombs.

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With their snake-like neck and large webbed feet, set far back on the body and a hooked bill, they are excellent fishers– so good that generations of Japanese used to tame them and use them for catching fish for them!  A small rope was tied around one leg so they could be retrieved and a band placed around their neck so they could not swallow the fish.  When the bird caught a fish, the fishermen would pull the bird back into the boat and take the fish from the bird’s throat.  Some birds were even trained to deposit the fish into a basket.  This method of fishing spread throughout the Orient and is still practised in some cultures today!

What makes them so despised in our society is their penchant for fish which has drawn the ire of many people who fish. However, recent research indicates that Cormorants prefer fish which are on the lower level of the food chain and are not palatable by most humans.  They also have another rap!  They nest in colonies in trees on lake shorelines or islands. Their excrement kills all vegetation as it is expelled from the nest.  Many island and shorelines have become completely devoid of plant life and stained by the white guano.

Double-crested Cormorants can be spotted flying between Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching at the narrows, or if you are boating on Lake Couchiching, you more than likely will see the destructive evidence of their colonies on some of the islands.

David A. Homer is on the Board of Directors at The Couchiching Conservancy.

Want to learn about what birds have been seen in our area?

Visit the Simcoe Nature Board.