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Red-faced Cormorant Life History


ShorelinesRed-faced Cormorants nest on steep cliffs of the North Pacific coast, on islands in Alaska, as well as headlands or peninsulas, far from human habitation. They place their nests on cliff ledges often among other seabirds such as Red-legged and Black-legged Kittiwakes, Thick-billed and Common Murres, and Northern Fulmars. When not foraging or nesting, they roost and rest along vegetation-free rocky shorelines in similar habitats, never moving inland or out of sight of the ocean. They forage in inshore waters, usually less than 650 feet deep, farther from shore than the similar but slightly smaller Pelagic Cormorant, up to about 10 miles from land. They move seasonally to forage in ice-free coastal waters, but do not migrate. Back to top



Red-faced Cormorants eat mainly fish that live near the ocean floor. They hunt by diving toward the seafloor, propelled by their large, webbed feet. They may stabilize themselves using wings and tail as they hunt among the rocks for fish and invertebrate prey. They swallow smaller prey whole underwater and bring larger prey to the surface to soften before swallowing. When breeding, Red-faced Cormorants forage within 1–2 miles of the nest, and often join Pelagic Cormorants and many other seabird species (alcids, gulls, tubenoses) in mixed-species flocks—but they forage alone, on prey near the bottom. Prey includes marine worms (polychaetes), small crustaceans (amphipods, euphausiids, decapods), mollusks, and various species of herring, smelt, sandlance, sculpin, flatfish (flounders), and scorpionfish.

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Nest Placement

Cliff Nests are set on rather broad ledges (1–2 feet wide) on steep cliffs on marine islands and coastlines.

Nest Description

Nests are oval-shaped bowls made of grass and seaweed held together with excrement (guano). Sometimes mosses, sticks, and feathers are incorporated. Nests are around 20 inches long, 16 inches wide, and 6 inches tall.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:2-3 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
Egg Length:2.4 in (6.1 cm)
Egg Width:1.5 in (3.7 cm)
Incubation Period:31-38 days
Nestling Period:40-50 days
Egg Description:Pale greenish or bluish.
Condition at Hatching:Naked and helpless.
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Surface Dive

Red-faced Cormorants are not as gregarious as other cormorants, often nesting as single pairs and rarely in colonies of more than 50 pairs. In spring, they usually claim nest ledges about two weeks earlier than Pelagic Cormorants. Males are the first to return to nesting cliffs, where they perform wing-waving displays, showing off their white flank patches to returning females. They often build rudimentary nests early in the season. Males defend these nests, threatening other males that come too close by staring at them, opening the mouth and shaking the bill, wing waving, head waving, head thrusting, and making guttural calls. If a rival male attempts to usurp the nest ledge, the owner fights to retain it, jabbing and grasping with the bill, while trying to push the opponent off the ledge. Subadults often wave their wings around the margins of colonies and adult males may attack them as well.

A female attracted to a male will land beside him. The male then exposes his vivid red mouth lining and bobs the head, and the female replies with head bowing, bill contact, and pointing to the ground, the site of the future nest. Thereafter, the female will stay at the nest ledge as the male gathers nesting material. Males perform wing-waving displays during nest building, joined in the display by females at times. Both male and female build the nest together, with the female arranging the nest, often until the last chick has fledged. The two use calls and displays to maintain their pair bond: females bow, both sexes open the bill to display the gape, and both kink the neck when building the nest, sometimes entwining their necks together. Both adults incubate the eggs and feed the chicks until fledging. Males bring nesting material throughout the nesting season, and chicks sometimes join the female in arranging nest material. Red-faced Cormorants often use the nest ledge for roosting well after nesting is complete. Some remain in the nest area year-round.

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Red-faced Cormorants are monitored in several locations by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and some populations are in decline. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population of Red-faced Cormorant at 130,000 individuals and rates the species 15 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, placing it on the Yellow Watch List for species in decline. Red-faced Cormorants are sensitive to disturbances at the nesting colony, and chicks or eggs exposed to the elements often do not survive. Oil spills, chemical contamination, plastic pollution, and commercial fishing also pose conservation threats to this and other seabird species. Introduced foxes on many Aleutian Islands frequently rob Red-faced Cormorant nests. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts a fox eradication program, in hopes of increasing seabird populations in the Aleutians.

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Causey, Douglas. (2002). Red-faced Cormorant (Phalacrocorax urile), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Kushlan, J. A., M. J. Steinkamp, K. C. Parsons, J. Capp, M. A. Cruz, M. Coulter, I. Davidson, L. Dickson, N. Edelson, R. Elliott, R. M. Erwin, S. Hatch, S. Kress, R. Milko, S. Miller, K. Mills, R. Paul, R. Phillips, J. E. Saliva, W. Sydeman, J. Trapp, J. Wheeler and K. Wohl (2002). Waterbird conservation for the Americas: The North American waterbird conservation plan, version 1. Washington, DC, USA.

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

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

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