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A Bird in Hand

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Image courtesy National Parks Service Image courtesy National Parks Service

Double-crested cormorant

Cormer... carmar... karma... How do you say it? Core-more-aunt. Cormorant. Specifically, the Double-crested cormorant. And a bird by any other name is just as weird.

There are few birds in our area as strange as the Double-crested cormorant. They are quite common around Lake Pend Oreille and other nearby large bodies of water. A good place to spot them is at the “bone yard” across from Denton Slough and at the south end of Long Bridge on highway 95. You’ll see them standing with their wings hung out to dry. Quite bizarre when you think about it.

And this is one of the distinctive traits of these large, black birds. Bigger than ducks, but smaller than geese, these slim aquatic birds are divers extraordinaire. They hunt their prey—predominantly fish—by diving. You can often spot cormorants swimming low in the water, with only the top of their backs and necks above the surface. When so spotted these birds are on fishing expeditions. They generally only enter the water to feed, otherwise they spend their time standing on pilings or rocks, drying their wings and hanging out with their buddies. Cormorants do not have waterproof feathers on their wings, thus the need to dry them out between excursions in the water. The feathers next their body are waterproof, therefore cold water does not seem to bother them. I have seen cormorants staying in our area until January. When the lake begins to ice over, they head for the coast or areas further south. 

Cormorants are distinctive in body structure. They are totally dark, with only a bit of orange flesh around the bill area to break up the monotony. The bill is long and hooked, perfect for grabbing fish. They swallow their victims whole. They have long, S-curved necks which extend in a strangely bent fashion when flying. They tend to keep low to the water surface when on the wing. They are quite powerful fliers.

These birds are named for the plumes the males sprout during breeding season. Two little tufts of white feathers extend from the side of the head, behind the eyes, and actually look quite goofy. But the females find such finery to be quite debonair. To each her own!

Cormorant populations took quite a hit a few decades back when DDT was commonly used as a pesticide. With the disuse of DDT, their populations rebounded. In fact, in some areas they exploded. There are other species of cormorants, but the double-crested is the only specie that normally inhabits our inland domains.
Cormorants are diverse nesters, willing to raise a brood on the ground or in trees. They tend to nest in groups, so if you stumble upon one nest, there will be more. And they sure do make a mess of things. One day out fishing on Lake Pend Oreille I happened upon an old nesting site on a gravel bar.  Gross! I didn’t even want to step out of the boat to have a look-see. And I thought Canada geese were the worse for leaving little impressions behind!

The next time you cruise past Lake Pend Oreille with the family, demonstrate your knowledge by pointing out the Double-crested Cormorants. Casually share a few interesting facts and your family will begin to show a new appreciation for your sophistication. Trust me, it works! Happy birding.

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, birding, cormorant, double-crested cormorant

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