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What is a Cormorant?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 09 September 2014
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A cormorant is a type of waterbird with characteristic dark, glossy plumage. Around 30 species of birds in the genus Phalacrocorax are considered cormorants, and the birds are found abundantly distributed around the world. Many cormorants are considered economically valuable species, as their guano has commercial applications as a source of fuel, fertilizers, and other substances. Cormorants and humans have also had a long relationship, with many early humans harvesting cormorant feathers for decorations and personal ornaments.

All cormorants have webbed feet, to assist them with swimming and diving. The birds also have slender, hooked beaks which are designed for catching and eating an assortment of small fish species, and they also have pouches which make them very easy to spot and identify. Many cormorants have pouches in bright colors like orange and yellow. The primarily black plumage of the birds may be marked with white, yellow, or red accents, depending on the species, and some cormorants also have crests. In some parts of the world, crested cormorants are known as shags.

Intriguingly for water birds, cormorants lack waterproofing oils on their feathers. The birds are often seen stretching out the wings so that they can dry out, and they are vulnerable to hypothermia if they are exposed to cold water for too long. This lack of waterproofing may help to streamline cormorants when they dive, since their feathers do not form air pockets for buoyancy, as most other waterbirds do.

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A group of cormorants is known as a colony; colonies can contain hundreds of individuals, and they may be quite noisy as the birds are extremely gregarious. Cormorant colonies also tend to smell atrocious, thanks to the copious guano that the birds produce. Colonies can be found in both fresh and saltwater locations, and often on islands, depending on the species of cormorant. One species of cormorant, the Galapagos Cormorant, is flightless. These unique birds can be found in the Galapagos Islands, along with a number of other unique animal, bird, and plant species.

Cormorants can look rather awkward and ungainly when they move around on land. This trait is common to many waterbirds, as the animals are designed for sleek, high speed performance in the water, not on land. Once in the water, a cormorant can dive amazingly quickly, and the birds are capable of swimming underwater, sometimes popping up surprisingly far from where they dived.

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