by Bronwyn Clear, Certified Texas Master Naturalist
Where there are fish, there are cormorants. If you don’t see these fellows around your fishing spot, it may not have any fish! Cormorants are here all year long, but thousands more migrate into the Lake Livingston area during the winter months.
These birds are a paradox – daffy but skillful, ungainly yet graceful, disliked and respected. They are about 5 lbs in weight, 2-1/2’ from head to tail, mostly brown to black in coloring, and they have a lightly serrated bill with a sharp hook on the end which helps them hold onto their catch. Although this bird is not in the duck family, it has big, black, floppy, webbed feet. When they paddle low in the water, the only thing you may see is their long snake-like neck and head. But look closer and you will notice their beautiful bright turquoise eyes!
Flight is not always easy for these fellows. They sink into the water and tend to flap hard to get their chubby tails off the water. They usually fly low near the water surface to get lift. It is not unusual to watch one make several flapping wet attempts to take off before it can actually get into the air. But underwater these cormorants are simply amazing! Some birds, like osprey and eagles, plunge-dive into the water to catch fish near the surface. Others, like white pelicans, paddle along the surface, open their mouths and let their meals swim in. But cormorants do elegant surface dives and skillfully chase their prey deep underwater. They can stay under for about a minute, darting down 20+/- feet to catch fast dodging fish! Consider going to youtube.com and searching for videos with the words “underwater cormorant”. These free diving birds are delightful to watch!
In China the fishermen raise and tame cormorants to fish for them. No worms, no hooks, and no fishing without catching! Fishermen tie loose nooses around their birds’ necks, and put them into the water to fetch fish! The birds pop back up to the surface with fish in their mouths, but the nooses prevent them from swallowing. They hop onto perches that the fishermen offer, come back into the boats and are coaxed to give up their catch. Then the cormorants are sent back into the water to do it all over again! Fish baskets fill up very fast and without fail.
In the States our cormorants are not so popular. Many sports fishermen do not like these birds. They believe that cormorants eat too many young sports fish, leaving fewer fish for fishermen. However, cormorants are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act which makes it illegal for people to harass, possess or harm them, or their nests and eggs.
Learn more about the incredible nature in our area by joining a chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist organization. To find a chapter close to you, or to read about the state program, go online to www.txmn.org. Volunteer and get involved!
Because they hunt underwater, their feathers do not repel water like duck feathers. Cormorants have less preening oil so they have to continually spread their wings to dry.
Cormorants flock together in the winter and make ‘bird rafts’ to hunt for fish. In the summer there are far fewer cormorants in our area, and then they tend to be solo hunters.