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Double-crested Cormorant Life History


Lakes and PondsDouble-crested Cormorants are colonial waterbirds that seek aquatic bodies big enough to support their mostly fish diet. However, they may roost and form breeding colonies on smaller lagoons or ponds, and then fly up to 40 miles to a feeding area. In addition to fishing waters, cormorants need perching areas for the considerable amount of time they spend resting each day. After fishing, cormorants retire to high, airy perches to dry off and digest their meals—rocks, wires, tops of dead trees, ship masts. They tend to form breeding colonies in clusters of trees in or near water. After a while, masses of cormorant guano may kill these trees and the trees may topple, at which point the cormorants may switch to nesting on the ground.Back to top


FishA cormorant’s diet is almost all fish, with just a few insects, crustaceans, or amphibians. They eat a wide variety of fish (more than 250 species have been reported), and they have impressive fishing technique: diving and chasing fish underwater with powerful propulsion from webbed feet. The tip of a cormorant’s upper bill is shaped like a hook, which is helpful for catching prey. When cormorants happen to catch a crustacean like a crayfish, they exhibit a little flair in eating it—hammering the prey on the water to shake its legs off, then flipping it in the air and catching it headfirst for easy swallowing. Back to top


Nest Placement

GroundThe male chooses the nest site and then attracts a female. Nests can be on the ground, on rocks or reefs with no vegetation, or atop trees, which may be alive when a cormorant colony first forms but typically die after a few years from the guano build-up. Nests are built in the center of a colony first, then expand outward.

Nest Description

Both Double-crested Cormorant mates work on the nest, with the male bringing most of the material and the female doing the building. The nest is mostly made of finger-size sticks, with some seaweed and flotsam, and lined with grass. Nests are 1.5 to 3 feet in diameter and 4 to 17 inches high; ground nests tend to be wider than tree nests, but tree nests have deeper interiors. Breeding cormorants readily steal nesting materials from a nearby nest that’s not guarded.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:1-7 eggs
Number of Broods:1-2 broods
Egg Length:2.2-2.8 in (5.6-7 cm)
Egg Width:1.4-1.6 in (3.5-4 cm)
Incubation Period:25-28 days
Nestling Period:21-28 days
Egg Description:Unmarked pale blue.
Condition at Hatching:Naked and feeble, eyes closed and barely able to move head.
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Surface DiveDouble-crested cormorants are gregarious birds that are almost always near water. Their main two activities are fishing and resting, with more than half their day spent on the latter. When at rest, a cormorant will choose an exposed spot on a bare branch or a windblown rock, and often spread its wings out, which is thought to be a means of drying their feathers after fishing. (Cormorants have less preen oil than other birds, so their feathers can get soaked rather than shedding water like a duck’s. Though this sounds like a liability, this is thought to be an adaptation that helps cormorants hunt underwater more effectively.) When swimming atop the water, cormorants ride very low, and often only their long necks are evident. Before a cormorant takes off in flight, it tends to stretch its neck in the direction it intends to fly. When it comes in for a landing, a cormorant will puff out the orange skin on its neck and, after touchdown, give a ritual little hop. If one cormorant encroaches on the space of another, such as in competition over a nest site, the cormorants will face off, stretch their necks, and open their mouths wide open to show off the blue color inside while shaking their heads and hissing at each other. To attract a mate for the season, a male cormorant will choose a nest site and then stand with his breast down and bill and tail up, showing off the crests on his head and bright colors of his neck and his eyes, grunting and slightly waving his outstretched wings. When a female arrives, she is greeted by the male opening his mouth into a gape, showing off the blue inside.Back to top


Low Concern

Double-crested Cormorant populations have rebounded from persecution and pesticides over the past couple centuries, and today they are a widespread and abundant species. Populations increased by approximately 2.6% per year between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 630,000 and rates them 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. In the 1800s and early 1900s, cormorants were frequently shot, and their numbers declined with westward settlement. In the mid-twentieth century, they also suffered greatly from the harmful effects of ingesting pesticides from contaminated fish. Since the 1970s, cormorant populations have grown steadily, even explosively in some places, doubling in periods as short as five years in the Great Lakes. They are still regarded as threats to fishing stocks by some and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issues permits for controlled cormorant shooting to protect fisheries.

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Dorr, B. S., J. J. Hatch, and D. V. Weseloh (2014). Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.

Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2021.1. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2021.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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