In praise of cormorants

This sculpture by John Coll is one of my favourite pieces of street art in Galway. Anyone who has spent time in the city will appreciate the iconographic status of the resident cormorants drying their wings in the Atlantic breezes. (Sometimes the sun even comes out to help.)

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Stan Carey - cormorant 1 - sculpture by John Coll, Galway

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Stan Carey - cormorant 2, Galway

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The cormorant, or Great Cormorant, is a large, dark, and striking water bird (70-100 cm; wingspan 120-160 cm) with webbed feet and a hook-tipped bill of medium length. Their long necks and well-adapted vision make them excellent fishers. I like watching them dive, and trying to guess where they will re-emerge. (I never can.)

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Stan Carey - cormorant 3, Galway

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Stan Carey - cormorant 4, Galway

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Cormorants’ plumage is mostly lustrous black, with a green, brown or blue sheen; they have a bare spot on the throat, and, in summer, a white patch on their thighs. At least one bird website considers them “rather ugly“, but this seems to me an unfair and absurd judgement. They are strong swimmers and impressive divers; indeed, their fishing ability has often brought them into conflict with fishermen. Judged for their appearance and appetite alike!

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Stan Carey - cormorant 5, Galway

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Stan Carey - cormorant 6, Galway

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Cormorants’ reputation for voracity may explain the adjectival use of cormorant to mean greedy or rapacious, along with the word’s figurative use as a noun meaning “an insatiably greedy person or thing”. Cormorant comes from Old French cormareng, from medieval Latin corvus marinus, meaning “sea-raven”. Its Irish name is broigheall (translation and alternatives here) and its marvellous technical name is Phalacrocorax carbo. (The shag, a smaller relative, is known as Phalacrocorax aristotelis.)

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Stan Carey - cormorant 7, Galway

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Stan Carey - cormorant 8, Galway

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It is thought that cormorants’ “partially wettable” plumage enables them to swim low in the water, i.e. by reducing buoyancy, and that their familiar open-winged stance helps them dry their feathers. Even with wet wings, though, they can become airborne surprisingly quickly, albeit laboriously. Cormorants breed in colonies on rocky shores, cliffs and islands, and inland (on trees) near lakes, estuaries and rivers. They lay three to four eggs in a nest of seaweed or twigs.

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Stan Carey - cormorant 9, Galway

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Stan Carey - cormorant 10, Galway

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Photos date from April 2008 to July 2009.

The Internet Bird Collection has some videos.

9 Responses to In praise of cormorants

  1. artistatexit0 says:

    In my part of the world, I like watching the
    Double-crested Cormorants fishing in the river. Like you, I try second guessing where the diving bird will surface for air and it is always in an unexpected spot. Thanks for your post!

  2. Stan says:

    My pleasure, artistatexit0. Thanks for your visit and comment! The double-crested cormorant seems to be a very similar bird to the great cormorant, and equally unpredictable underwater – at least to human eyes…

  3. Sean Jeating says:

    Entirely lovely post.
    As for the mentioned “conflict with fishermen”.
    I remember such a “conflict” in the north-east of Germany (Mecklenburg).

    The “solution” there: Mass killings.

    I’ve not come to know, yet, whether this brave “self-defence” helped to increase said fishermen’s income.

  4. Claudia says:

    Can’t remember ever seeing one. Beautiful photos. Very interesting post, and links. Thank you.

  5. Stan says:

    Thank you, Sean. It is difficult to assess just how much rivalry for available fish stock exists between cormorants and fishermen. From what little I know and understand of the situation, I would guess that the competition is considerably less than some parties suggest. In any case, licensed and unlicensed slaughter of large numbers of birds does not seem an especially constructive or appropriate course of action.

    Claudia: You’re welcome! I’m glad you liked the photos. Growing up on the shore of a large lake, I was accustomed to seeing cormorants from an early age, so it pleases me to retain them as neighbours in my adult years. I didn’t know if there were likely to be any in your part of the world, but I’m sure you have your own unusual feathered friends.

  6. Tor Hershman says:

    The pic of the bird, wall, moss and sea is most beautiful.

    Stay on groovin’ safari,
    Tor

  7. Stan says:

    Thank you Tor! It was a beautiful subject and moment; I had the good fortune to be passing by with a working camera.

  8. bronwen wathan says:

    I watch these birds sitting on the floats near the barrage at the mouth of the Tawe river, Swansea and watch them diving for fish.
    I love the silhouettes they make when their wings are outstretched to dry. My walk by the river wouldn’t be the same if they weren’t there.
    What lovely photos!!

  9. Stan says:

    Thanks, bronwen. I love to watch them too, whether they’re in or out of the water. They always give my day a lift.

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