A bird of highly refined abilities, we often see double-crested cormorants standing on pilings or rocks with wings out-stretched like they’re drying out. They are! These large diving birds are year-round residents of the Salish Sea, although many more visit during winter. coming from the east as ‘snowbirds’. Cormorants nest in colonies, usually on remote islands, cliff ledges or even treetops utilizing a collection of seaweed, moss and sticks that may be used many times. Head-crests only grow during breeding and nesting season and are darker on the East Coast, whiter on the West Coast. They don’t dive while flying like ospreys or kingfishers, but dive from the surface using powerful feet and even their wings as if they’re flying underwater. A sharp hooked beak almost like a fish hook helps grab swimming fish, and smaller ones are eaten while still underwater.
Over time, Cormorants have evolved to make themselves much better at what they do, which is diving for fish. While most diving birds have body oils to help keep their feathers dry, cormorants have given that up for a better ability to dive deeper and longer, increasing their chances for a meal. But this adaptation means they often have to ‘dry out’ by standing in the sun with wings outstretched. Unlike most other flying birds, cormorants have relatively solid bones that also help keep them submerged. Large and powerful legs and feet make for faster swimming, and the web between their toes is closed up to help swimming. Those green eyes? They can alter ocular shape to allow for focusing on a fish just a few inches in front of them. And a final adaption is that chicks have nostrils at birth but permanently close as they mature. Plugged nostrils help underwater swimming.
Larry Eifert paints and writes about wild places. His work is in many national parks across America – and at larryeifert.com.