CORMORANT (from the Lat. corvus marinus, through the Fr., in some patois of which it is still “cor marin”; in certain Ital. dialects are the forms “corvo marin” or “corvo marino”), a large sea-fowl belonging to the genus Phalacrocorax (Carbo, Halieus and Graculus of some ornithologists), and that group of the Linnaean order Anseres, now partly generally recognized by Illiger’s term Steganopodes, of which it with its allies forms a family Phalacrocoracidae.
The cormorant (P. carbo) frequents almost all the sea-coast of Europe, and breeds in societies at various stations, most generally on steep cliffs, but occasionally on rocky islands as well as on trees. The nest consists of a large mass of sea-weed, and, with the ground immediately surrounding it, generally looks as though bespattered with whitewash, from the excrement of the bird, which lives entirely on fish. The eggs, from four to six in number, are small, and have a thick, soft, calcareous shell, bluish-white when first laid, but soon becoming discoloured. The young are hatched blind, and covered with an inky-black skin. They remain for some time in the squab-condition, and are then highly esteemed for food by the northern islanders, their flesh being said to taste as well as a roasted hare’s. Their first plumage is of a sombre brownish-black above, and more or less white beneath. They take two or three years to assume the fully adult dress, which is deep black, glossed above with bronze, and varied in the breeding-season with white on the cheeks and flanks, besides being adorned by filamentary feathers on the head, and further set off by a bright yellow gape. The old cormorant looks nearly as big as a goose, but is really much smaller; its flesh is quite uneatable.
Taken when young from the nest, this bird is easily tamed and can be trained to fish for its keeper, as was of old time commonly done in England, where the master of the cormorants was one of the officers of the royal household. Nowadays the practice is nearly obsolete. When taken out to furnish sport, a strap is fastened round the bird’s neck so as, without impeding its breath, to hinder it from swallowing its captures. Arrived at the waterside, it is cast off. It at once dives and darts along the bottom as swiftly as an arrow in quest of its prey, rapidly scanning every hole or pool. A fish is generally seized within a few seconds of its being sighted, and as each is taken the bird rises to the surface with its capture in its bill. It does not take much longer to dispose of the prize in the dilatable skin of its throat so far as the strap will allow, and the pursuit is recommenced until the bird’s gular pouch, capacious as it is, will hold no more. It then returns to its keeper, who has been anxiously watching and encouraging its movements, and a little manipulation of its neck effects the delivery of the booty. It may then be let loose again, or, if considered to have done its work, it is fed and restored to its perch. The activity the bird displays under water is almost incredible to those who have not seen its performances, and in a shallow river scarcely a fish escapes its keen eyes, and sudden turns, except by taking refuge under a stone or root, or in the mud that may be stirred up during the operation, and so avoiding observation (see Salvin and Freeman, Falconry, 1859).
Nearly allied to the cormorant, and having much the same habits, is the shag, or green cormorant of some writers (P. graculus). The shag (which name in many parts of the world is used in a generic sense) is, however, about one-fourth smaller in linear dimensions, is much more glossy in plumage, and its nuptial embellishment is a nodding plume instead of the white patches of the cormorant. The easiest diagnostic on examination will be found to be the number of tail-feathers, which in the former are fourteen and in the shag twelve. The latter, too, is more marine in the localities it frequents, scarcely ever entering fresh or indeed inland waters.
In the south of Europe a much smaller species (P. pygmaeus) is found. This is almost entirely a fresh-water bird, and is not uncommon on the lower Danube. Other species, to the number perhaps of thirty or more, have been discriminated from other parts of the world, but all have a great general similarity to one another. New Zealand and the west coast of northern America are particularly rich in birds of this genus, and the species found there are the most beautifully decorated of any. All, however, are remarkable for their curiously-formed feet, the four toes of each being connected by a web, for their long stiff tails, and for the absence, in the adult, of any exterior nostrils. When gorged, or when the state of the tide precludes fishing, they are fond of sitting on an elevated perch, often with extended wings, and in this attitude they will remain motionless for a considerable time, as though hanging themselves out to dry. It was perhaps this peculiarity that struck the observation of Milton, and prompted his well-known similitude of Satan to a cormorant (Parad. Lost, iv. 194); but when not thus behaving they themselves provoke the more homely comparison of a row of black bottles. Their voracity is proverbial. (A. N.)
- Some authors, following Caius, derive the word from corvus vorans and spell it corvorant, but doubtless wrongly.
- So spelt since the days of Gesner; but possibly Phalaracorax would be more correct.
- According to Willoughby it was formerly the custom to carry the cormorant hooded till it was required; in modern practice the bearer wears a face-mask to protect himself from its beak.