four webbed and fabulous: The Pelagic cormorant-winter 2008

Don’t let the name fool you: Pelagic Cormorants aren’t actually pelagic. Instead of braving the off-shore habitats frequented by fulmars and albatrosses, this species makes its home in nearshore waters from Alaska to Baja. Despite the misnomer, the Pelagic Cormorant is a truly marine species rarely found in freshwater rivers and lakes like its cousin theDouble-crested Cormorant.

Unlike many seabirds, cormorants are easy to see from land. They have uniquely designed plumage that allows air to escape from between feathers during dives. This feature makes them less buoyant so they can reach incredible depths in pursuit of prey, but leaves them a soggy mess at the end of the dive. Along the outer coast Pelagics are often sighted perching on rocks or pilings ‘hanging their wings out to dry’ because structural differences in their feathers decreases their ability to repel water.

Pelagic Cormorant

You can destinguish this Pelagic Cormorant from the larger Double-crested and Brandt's Cormorant by the two bright white butt patches. (L. Miller)

And speaking of diving, Pelagics are exceptional swimmers, reaching depths greater than 100 meters. Rather than flying under water using their wings for propulsion like murres or puffins, cormorants tuck their wings tightly to their sides and use their thick, muscular legs for power, splaying all four toes to maximize webbed area for steering.

With frequent appearances on the top 10 beached birds list, Pelagic Cormorants are familiar to many COASST participants. During the 2007–08 season, 68 turned up, mostly on the northern coasts of Washington and Oregon. There are about 400,000 Pelagics worldwide, all living in the North Pacific. Populations are not well-studied, but believed to be relatively stable, despite a negative reputation in some quarters.

Chasing fish has made cormorants, including Pelagics, a rather controversial group of seabirds. As fish-eaters, they are viewed by some people as competition and have been hazed, hunted, and had their nests destroyed in misplaced efforts to reduce their impact on local fish populations. As it turns out, Pelagic Cormorants mostly eat baitfish like sandlance and herring, as well as a smattering of marine
worms and crustaceans.

During the breeding season, you can distinguish Pelagics from the larger Double-crested and Brandt’s Cormorants by the two bright white butt patches. Cheeky males show off their nest territory and try to attract females by fluttering their dark wings over their white patches for a sexy strobelight effect. Up close, the black plumage of the adults is strikingly iridescent with an unruly tuft of spiky feathers on the forehead and bare red skin around the base of the bill up to the eye. If you’re lucky enough to visit or live in the vicinity of the Alaska Peninsula, Aleutian Islands, or Pribilof Islands, you may also see the Red-faced Cormorant. This less common species is difficult to distinguish from a Pelagic
Cormorant, but is slightly larger and, as the name suggests, has more extensive bright red facial skin completely surrounding the eye, as well as a yellow bill.

Keep a lookout for beached Pelagic Cormorants during late summer, especially during the month of September, after young, inexperienced birds have left the nest and adult birds are exhausted from raising 3–4 hungry chicks. Better yet, spend some quality time watching these graceful, prehistoric-looking seabirds as they dive for fish along a shoreline near you!


Check out these websites for more information about Pelagic Cormorants: