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Double-crested Cormorant

Phalacrocorax auritus ORDER: SULIFORMES FAMILY: PHALACROCORACIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

The gangly Double-crested Cormorant is a prehistoric-looking, matte-black fishing bird with yellow-orange facial skin. Though they look like a combination of a goose and a loon, they are relatives of frigatebirds and boobies and are a common sight around fresh and salt water across North America—perhaps attracting the most attention when they stand on docks, rocky islands, and channel markers, their wings spread out to dry. These solid, heavy-boned birds are experts at diving to catch small fish.

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Keys to identification Help

Gull-like
Gull-like
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Double-crested Cormorants are large waterbirds with small heads on long, kinked necks. They have thin, strongly hooked bills, roughly the length of the head. Their heavy bodies sit low in the water.

  • Color Pattern

    Adults are brown-black with a small patch of yellow-orange skin on the face. Immatures are browner overall, palest on the neck and breast. In the breeding season, adults develop a small double crest of stringy black or white feathers.

  • Behavior

    Double-crested Cormorants float low on the surface of water and dive to catch small fish. After fishing, they stand on docks, rocks, and tree limbs with wings spread open to dry. In flight, they often travel in V-shaped flocks that shift and reform as the birds alternate bursts of choppy flapping with short glides.

  • Habitat

    Double-crested Cormorants are the most widespread cormorant in North America, and the one most frequently seen in freshwater. They breed on the coast as well as on large inland lakes. They form colonies of stick nests built high in trees on islands or in patches of flooded timber.

Range Map Help

Double-crested Cormorant Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

  • Breeding adult

    Double-crested Cormorant

    Breeding adult
    • Large dark waterbird
    • Long, glossy black neck
    • Bare orange throat pouch
    • Long gray bill hooked at tip
    • © David Stephens, Cherry Creek State Park, Colorado, May 2010
  • Breeding adult

    Double-crested Cormorant

    Breeding adult
    • Large, heavy-bodied waterbird
    • Mostly black overall with paler scalloped pattern on back and wings
    • Breeding adults show two tufted plumes on head
    • Long bill hooked at tip
    • © Laura Meyers, Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York, April 2011
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Double-crested Cormorant

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Large, heavy-bodied waterbird
    • Black breast and head, grayer on back with scalloped pattern
    • Bare orange patch at base of bill
    • Long bill hooked at tip
    • © Lorcan Keating, Golden State Park, San Francisco, California, February 2010
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Double-crested Cormorant

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Large dark waterbird
    • Often seen perched with wings held open while drying in sun
    • Long, slender bill hooked at tip
    • © Guy Litcher, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, August 2009
  • Immature

    Double-crested Cormorant

    Immature
    • Large waterbird with long neck accentuated while swimming
    • Long, slender orange bill hooked at tip
    • Immatures paler overall, particularly on breast
    • © Osprey41, Tarpon Springs, Florida, January 2010
  • Immatures

    Double-crested Cormorant

    Immatures
    • Large, heavy-bodied waterbirds
    • Long orange bills hooked at tip
    • Bare orange throat pouch
    • © Jim McCree, Bass Harbor, Maine, August 2010
  • Immature

    Double-crested Cormorant

    Immature
    • Large, heavy-bodied waterbird
    • Long wings and tail
    • Distinctive in flight with long neck and slender, hooked bill
    • Immature shows pale breast
    • © Stephen Ramirez, Texas, March 2010

Similar Species

  • Breeding adult with Double-cresteds

    Neotropic Cormorant

    Breeding adult with Double-cresteds
    • Neotropic (at right) is noticeably smaller
    • Longer tail and shorter wings than Double-crested
    • Thin white patch on chin
    • © Lois Manowitz, Tucson, Arizona, November 2009
  • Breeding adult

    Great Cormorant

    Breeding adult
    • Similar to Double-crested but slightly larger and heavier
    • Large, squared-off head
    • White chin and throat
    • © Nick Dean, Dungeness, England, April 2012
  • Immature

    Great Cormorant

    Immature
    • Larger and heavier-bodied than Double-crested
    • Immatures show distinctive white belly, contrasting with gray neck
    • White throat contrasts with yellow/orange chin
    • © Joby Joseph, Hyderabad, India, April 2011
  • Breeding adult

    Brandt's Cormorant

    Breeding adult
    • Similar to Double-crested but shorter-tailed
    • Lacks scalloped pattern on back and wings
    • No orange skin on throat
    • Breeding adults show wispy white plumes on back and neck
    • © hawk person, Point Lobos, California, March 2012
  • Immature

    Brandt's Cormorant

    Immature
    • Similar to immature Double-crested but with darker neck and tan breast
    • Dark bill with no orange on throat
    • Pale, whitish chin
    • © Mike Forsman, Channel Islands Harbor, California, November 2008
  • Nonbreeding adult

    Pelagic Cormorant

    Nonbreeding adult
    • Smaller and more slender than Double-crested
    • Thin, "pencil" neck
    • Petite, slender dark bill
    • © ship rock, Richmond, British Columbia, Canada, August 2010

Similar Species

Neotropic Cormorants occur alongside Double-crested Cormorants in an expanding area of the southern United States. The Neotropic is smaller with a longer tail, and the area in front of the eye is covered by feathers instead of bare facial skin. Brandt’s Cormorants and Pelagic Cormorants overlap with Double-crested only along the Pacific Coast. Brandt’s Cormorants are slightly larger with a shorter tail; adults have bright bluish facial skin. Pelagic Cormorants are smaller, with very thin necks and a tiny head; breeding adults show large white hip patches. The Great Cormorant overlaps with Double-crested on the northern Atlantic Coast. It is somewhat larger and thicker overall; breeding adults have prominent white flank patches and a less-obvious white patch around the bill. Juvenile Great Cormorants have a white belly instead of the pale brown of Double-crested. The Anhinga of the southeastern United States is more slender with a longer, straighter bill and longer tail. In flight at a distance, Canada Geese look much like Double-crested Cormorants, but their flocks don’t change shape as much, and geese never stop flapping in direct flight.

Regional Differences

Double-crested Cormorants in Alaska are larger with whiter, straighter crests than individuals in the rest of North America. Heading southeast through their range, they are smaller with less obvious, curly black head crests. The smallest individuals are in the Bahamas.

Find This Bird

Look near lakes and coastlines for perched black waterbirds, smaller and with shorter legs than a heron, and a distinctive S-shaped crook in their neck. On the water they sit low, with the head and bill usually tilted slightly upward. You may also see them holding their wings spread-eagled and sunning themselves. Flocks of cormorants fly in irregularly shaped lines or sloppy V’s. In flight, cormorants hold their head up, neck slightly bent, belly hanging low, and their wing beats are slow and labored.