Here’s a challenge for you today: Put on your nature detective hat to solve a mystery – the case of the much-maligned double-crested cormorant. (Maligned means to speak badly of.) These waterbirds rarely show up on lists of people’s favorite animals. In fact, lots of people really loathe them.
They have been given a bad rap! We’re going to help fix their reputation one myth at a time and learn some cool facts about these fascinating birds.
About double-crested cormorants
The world is home to six different kinds of cormorants, but the only one you’ll find in Will County is the double-crested cormorant. Double-crested refers to the tufts of feathers adults get just above their eyes. From far away, these crests almost look like long, fluttering eyelashes.
You can see double-crested cormorants here during their breeding season, from spring through early fall. Look near lakes' and rivers’ edges for these waterbirds, which look like a cross between a goose and a heron.
Myth No. 1: Double-crested cormorants are ugly
False! Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but take a closer look at these birds. From far away, they just look like big, prehistoric black birds with funky snaky necks. Zoom in, nature detectives.
These cormorants have beautiful, bewitching turquoise eyes that sparkle like jewels with a neat ridged ring around them. They also have a small patch of bright yellowish-orange skin on their faces. Peer into a breeding adult’s mouth and it’s an icy bright blue color. It looks like cormorants have been sucking on blue raspberry candy all day! And while most of their bodies are covered in black feathers, their wing feathers are shimmery bronze, edged in black. What a great textured look.
As for looking prehistoric, it’s just a great reminder that they are related to dinosaurs. Isn’t that cool?
Myth No. 2: Double-crested cormorants steal fish
False! Sometimes anglers (people who fish) say there are too many cormorants and they eat all the fish. The reality is they eat less fish than loons, and they are often going after fish that people don’t want. Either way, double-crested cormorants still must eat.
They are amazing fishing birds, hunting more than 250 species of fish. They also eat a few insects, crustaceans and amphibians. Double-crested cormorants have impressive fishing skills: diving and chasing fish underwater, using their webbed feet to push themselves forward. Their hooked beaks allow them to capture prey.
They can dive down up to 25 feet! This is because their bodies are made for swimming. Their feathers don’t have much preening oil. Oil keeps water off the feathers of birds (like ducks) and protects their bodies from getting soaked. The problem is that the oily coating stops a bird from diving well. Cormorants’ waterlogged feathers, solid bodies and dense bones let them sink faster.
Myth No. 3: Double-crested cormorants are up to no good
False! Some people think they look sinister or sneaky, but a lot of that is just because they are black. Ravens and blackbirds face the same persecution. They can’t help the color of their feathers! Some people also get this idea because they hang around in gangs and spread their wings wide open. Watch closer, nature detective. Can you find the reason?
Cormorants are social animals, just like us. They want to be around other cormorants, gathering in groups called colonies to raise their young. They spend a lot of time hanging out together because swimming takes a lot of energy. They must rest in between dives.
Double-crested cormorants spread out their wings to dry their feathers in the sun. Remember, they don’t have much preening oil, so they are wet! You can check them out in action as they dry out.
The truth: Double-crested cormorants are cool!
Here’s a few reasons why.
Parents act as sunblock – and water bottles. Double-crested cormorant nests are often in the sun’s blaze. Adults stand over the chicks to make shade. They also bring the chicks water, pouring it from their beaks. Imagine your mom or dad offering you a beverage straight from their mouths!
Young cormorants will leave their nests to hang out with other youngsters. This is called a creche. Then they return to their own nests to be fed. Nature detective, do you do anything similar?
Cormorants make a lot of poop! Naturalists call it guano, and there can be so much buildup that it kills any trees they are nesting in. When that happens, it’s time to move.
They are never without a comb! Cormorants have a claw on their middle toe that they use to fix their feathers.
Is that a pig farm? Nope it’s just the calls of double-crested cormorants! Listen to their oinking sounds.
Someone’s junk is their building treasure. They create bulky platform nests with lots of sticks, but they often add rope, deflated balloons, fishnet, plastic and even dead birds.
Now that we’ve busted the myths about these birds, you can see double-crested cormorants for yourself! One of the best places to look is the pirate-ship-looking nesting platforms at Lake Renwick Preserve in Plainfield, which has three access points. The Heron Rookery Nature Preserve is closed from March through mid-August to protect nesting birds. However, you can sign up for special programs, like Migratory Bird Hikes and Lake Renwick Bird Viewings. Visit the Forest Preserve District’s event calendar for more information. The other two access access points — Turtle Lake and Copley Nature Park — are open year-round.
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