cormorant

A cormorant enjoying his early morning breakfast in the Florida Keys! Note the hook/knife adaptation at the end of his beak.

Walk along the shore or head out on a boat in the Florida Keys and you will undoubtedly spot a cormorant bobbing on the surface of the ocean. However, most people rarely stop and appreciate these ubiquitous black birds and their amazing fishing skills.

The cormorant’s name arises from the Latin for “sea raven.” Today, this sea bird is grouped into a variety of coastal and oceanic birds as the cormorant is commonly found around the world and has even successfully adapted to survive in Antarctica.

These medium to large diving birds are typically dark black in color, often displaying an iridescent blue or purple sheen in the neck/head region when viewed in bright sunlight. Cormorants are very adept at diving underwater and catching fish (or eels). There are a few varieties that can dive as deep as 150 feet, propelled along underwater by their powerful feet, and to a lesser degree their wings. The cormorant’s diet of fish requires them to regurgitate “pellets,” which contain undigestible items such as scales and bones!

Evolution has provided the cormorant with webbed feet, which are set way back on their body, allowing them to swim quickly underwater, however making them walk awkwardly on land. In addition, their wings have become considerably short (for their body size), which has earned them the distinction of having the “highest flight energy cost” for any flying bird. Their limited oil glands allow their feathers to become saturated with water, enabling them to easily dive and stay underwater. As a result of these adaptations, a cormorant floating on the ocean will often hesitate to take flight, even when a boat is bearing down on its immediate location.

Cormorants have a long beak with a 90-degree “sharp hook” on the end that assists them in holding onto a wiggling fish. I can attest to the effectiveness of this “knife,” as one of my fishermen inadvertently snagged a cormorant and as soon as I removed the treble hook from the frightened bird’s wing, it quickly spun his head around and stuck that knife-like hook deep into the back of my hand. Thus, once again, confirming the saying “No good deed goes unpunished!”

The cormorant is an exceptional “angler” and as a result, many cultures have used these birds to capture fish for human consumption. By placing a small snare/loop around the bird’s neck, the bird is allowed to eat small fish, but when they attempted to swallow a large fish it becomes lodged in their throat. The “fisherman” retrieves the bird and assists in removing the larger fish and then places it in their basket for dinner. People living along the seashore in Japan, China, India and Peru have all used these sea birds to aid in catching fish for their family’s survival.

Since cormorants have almost no oil on their feathers, they are not very waterproof (like a duck). For this reason, it is not uncommon to see these birds perched in a tree or on land drying their feathers by extending their wings in a classic motionless stance usually facing the sun. As a result, many cultures have come to associate this symbolic stance with a religious cross, and over time these birds have taken on special status. In Scandinavia, cormorants are considered good omen, as they represent the spirits of loved ones who were lost at sea.

Cormorants can live for up to 25 years in the wild and we are fortunate to have them as a valuable part of the Florida Key’s ocean ecosystem!

Capt. Pete Peterson welcomes comments and suggestions sent to petersonventures@aol.com.