Cormorants have ancestors that date tot he the time of the dinosaurs. They are some of the most prehistoric-looking birds on the planet. Several species live in North America, and they have more in common with pelicans and penguins than other birds.
The six species native to North America are the Double-crested Cormorant, Great Cormorant, Brandt’s Cormorant, Red-faced Cormorant, Neo-tropic Cormorant, and the Pelagic Cormorant.
If you want to know more about the cormorants found in North America, please read on.
What Are Cormorants?
Cormorants, which are from the family Phalacrocoracidae, are often known differently elsewhere. In different areas of the world, they are known as Shags, which refers to the crests that some have. Great Cormorants in North America are known as the Black Shag in New Zealand. There are 38 species of cormorants living throughout the world, and six make their home in North America.
Cormorants and shags are in a group called non-passerines. They can easily be distinguished from passerines as they rarely perch due to their large size.
They are called diving birds, and some can dive into water from heights up to 150 feet. They are great fishers and have hook-shaped bills that are serrated and long.
Their diet consists of shrimp, crab, crayfish, salamanders, eels, snakes, herring, tadpoles, frogs, and various insects. Their diet varies depending on whether they are coastal or inland.
The six different cormorant species in North America have common behavior when breeding. They all nest in colonies, and both males and females incubate the eggs and feed the young.
In some species, the male builds the nest, while in others, the female. Breeding takes place between three and five years, depending on the species.
Cormorants are mostly quiet birds. They emit deep grunts that resemble the sound of a pig. These vocalizations usually occur during mating, fierce skirmishes, flight, and landing.
Cormorant populations have risen over the years in North America. This is due to the decrease in the use of certain pesticides. The harmful chemicals often cause breakage of the eggs and deformities to occur in hatchlings. There has been a significant rebound in cormorants and many other species since some pesticides were banned.
The Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) is the most frequently spotted cormorant and has a broader distribution compared to other species. It can be found inland, ranging from Alaska and Newfoundland to New England and as far south as the Bahamas.
These birds are predominantly dark, with a distinctive golden sheen on their wings. They can be identified by their orange face, although the two crests can be challenging to discern. Double-crested Cormorants typically grow to a size of 30 to 36 inches, making them one of the largest cormorant species.
While usually silent during most of their activities, these birds make sounds during breeding, takeoff, or landing, emitting a low grunt. They are commonly found near lakes, rivers, and coastal waters.
In nests, they typically lay 2 to 7 greenish-blue eggs, and these nests can sometimes be located in trees or on cliffs. The Double-crested Cormorant is the sole commonly encountered freshwater cormorant species in North America.
The Great Cormorant, (Phalacrocorax carbo) the largest among cormorant species, typically measures between 35 to 40 inches in length. These striking birds are characterized by their predominantly dark plumage adorned with shimmering green and gold iridescence. During the summer, they display distinctive white chin and flank patches.
One of the key features that set the Great Cormorant apart from other cormorant species is its notably larger head and bill. Often, you can observe them perching with their wings outstretched, a behavior commonly employed to aid in drying their wings.
These majestic birds are commonly found along the Atlantic coast, ranging from Florida to Labrador, making their presence known in a wide coastal range.
During their breeding season, which takes place along Canada’s coast, Great Cormorants lay clutches of 3 to 4 pale blue eggs. They construct their nests in piles of seaweed located on open ledges or at the base of cliffs. The incubation period for these eggs spans 28 to 29 days, a task diligently shared between the male and female.
Brandt’s Cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus) derives its name from the German naturalist Johann Friedrich von Brandt, who initially described this bird from specimens.
This species exhibits predominantly black plumage with a distinctive blue throat patch, bordered by a ring of pale cream. Unlike some other cormorant species, they lack a crest, and their plumage boasts an iridescent quality.
Brandt’s Cormorant primarily inhabits the Pacific coast, ranging from southern Alaska southward to Mexico. Their breeding grounds extend from southern British Columbia to Mexico, making them exclusive to the Pacific coastal region.
Breeding typically occurs during the months of April and May, during which Brandt’s Cormorants lay clutches of 3 to 6 pale blue eggs. Both males and females actively participate in the incubation process. Their nests are constructed from a combination of seaweed and twigs, typically situated on the ground.
In terms of size, Brandt’s Cormorants generally reach a length of 33 to 35 inches. They are known to produce a variety of vocalizations, including grunts and occasional croaks.
The Red-faced Cormorant (Phalacrocorax urile) closely related to the Pelagic Cormorant, is a resident bird species in Southern Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.
These medium-sized birds typically reach a length of 30 to 32 inches. They are primarily characterized by their dark plumage with a distinctive greenish-blue tint and purplish-bronze coloration on their sides and flanks. Red-faced Cormorants are easily recognizable during the breeding season by the presence of white flank patches and a striking double crest, adding to their unique charm. Notably, they sport red faces and distinctive yellow bills.
During the breeding season, these birds exhibit vocal behaviors, often heard grunting and growling as part of their reproductive rituals.
Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that the Red-faced Cormorant is a species of concern for conservationists. Their restricted range and specific habitat requirements make them vulnerable to environmental changes and human impacts. Conservation efforts are crucial to ensure the continued well-being of these distinctive birds in their native habitat.
The Neotropic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax brasilianus) also known as the Olivaceous Cormorant, is a bird species inhabiting a diverse range of regions, from Southern Texas to Mexico, extending further into Louisiana, New Mexico, and even sparsely into the Great Plains.
These small cormorants boast dark olive plumage, a distinctive feature that sets them apart. They possess an eye-catching orange-yellow throat patch encircled by a white border. Despite their small stature, Neotropic Cormorants grow to a length of approximately 23 to 25 inches, and they exhibit a relatively long tail, which is notable for the smallest cormorant species along the Atlantic coast.
Although generally known for their silence, Neotropic Cormorants do emit grunting sounds during the breeding season, a behavior common among cormorant species. Their preferred habitats include freshwater environments, lagoons, and marshes, where they actively forage for food.
When it comes to nesting, Neotropic Cormorants fashion their nests from twigs and grass, situating them in rocky outcrops or trees. Their typical clutch size ranges from 2 to 6 pale blue eggs, which they carefully incubate. These fascinating birds play an important ecological role in the ecosystems they inhabit, and their adaptability to various environments underscores their significance in avian biodiversity.
The Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) predominantly found along the Pacific coast, stands out as the smallest cormorant species in this region, typically reaching a size range of 25 to 30 inches.
These birds are easily recognizable due to their entirely black plumage and their slender neck and bill. One of their distinctive features during the breeding season is a striking red face adorned with a double crest, which can sometimes be observed in the field.
While generally silent during most of their activities, Pelagic Cormorants do emit low grunting sounds when they are in the midst of their breeding rituals. They are primarily found along the Pacific coast, showing a preference for sheer coastal cliffs as their habitat. Despite their name suggesting a preference for open sea living, they are, in fact, coastal birds.
For nesting, Pelagic Cormorants construct their nests using grasses, sedges, and seaweed. They position these nests on cliffs with narrow ledges. Typically, they lay clutches of 3 to 7 pale blue eggs, which they carefully incubate, contributing to the conservation of their species along the Pacific coast. These fascinating birds exemplify the adaptability of wildlife to various coastal environments and ecosystems.
References And Further Reading
Cormorants, Darters, and Pelicans of the World by Paul A. Johnsgard
Comprehensive resource covering cormorants, darters, and pelicans globally, exploring their biology, behavior, and distribution.
Cormorants by Pablo Garcia Borboroglu and Deborah C. Lascelles
Focuses on cormorant biology and conservation, emphasizing their ecological roles and challenges in different regions.
Cormorants, Seabirds of the North Atlantic: Their Biology and Ecology by David N. Nettleship and Ted R. Telfair II
In-depth exploration of North Atlantic cormorants, including behavior and conservation status.
Cormorants and Shags by Bryan Nelson and Hans-Ulrich Rösner
Comprehensive coverage of cormorants and shags worldwide, encompassing biology, ecology, and conservation.
The Double-crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah by Linda R. Wires
Focuses on the Double-crested Cormorant and delves into its natural history, interactions with humans, and conservation challenges.
Bryan Harding is a member of the American Society of Mammalogists and a member of the American Birding Association. Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Bryan serves as owner, writer, and publisher of North American Nature.