Nature Bulletin No. 560-A March 29, 1975
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
Infrequently, during their spring and fall migrations, Cormorants, also
called Shags, may be seen diving for fish along Chicago's lake front or
on forest preserve waters such as McGinnis Slough near Orland Park.
Large numbers pass through the state but a few remain and nest,
summer after summer, in colonies such as the one at Lake DePue in the
Illinois River valley.
Many of the cormorant's physical characteristics and habits mark it as a
primitive bird, one little different from an ancestral type that lived in a
remote geological period. It is related to two other grotesque fish-eaters
which occasionally wander into Illinois, the pelican and the water
turkey (or anhinga). At first sight, the cormorant looks like a bird that
might have come to life from a museum exhibit illustrating the Age of
The Double-crested Cormorant -- so-called because of a tuft of curly
feathers on each side of the head -- is the only common species in this
central part of the continent. It is a large black water bird about the size
of a small wild goose. Flocks of them are sometimes seen sitting
upright, with wings outspread, in dead trees, on pilings, or on rock
ledges along shore. In flight they form lines or V's like geese except that
they occasionally sail. The wings are also used to add speed under
water where the rather long stiff tail feathers serve as a rudder. The
short powerful legs and feet, with all four toes webbed, are well-suited
for rapid swimming in pursuit of fish. The slender beak is hooked at the
tip for grabbing and holding large fish.
Most double-crested cormorants winter along our southern coasts and
nest in certain localities from the Gulf of Mexico to northern Canada.
The nests, of sticks, weeds and grass, are usually built in colonies in
tree tops -- often among the nests of a heron rookery. Others nest on
rocky islands. The 2 to 4 bluish-white eggs, about the size of large hen's
eggs, have a chalky coating. After 29 days of incubation, they hatch. At
first, the blind naked young look like little wiggling greasy rubber bags.
In a few days they grow a covering of black down. To eat, they poke
their heads far down into the parent's throat pouch and rummage for
predigested fish soup.
Two other species of cormorants rarely stray as far inland as Illinois.
One, the somewhat larger European Cormorant, is world-wide in
distribution and is common along our North Atlantic coast. Another, the
Mexican, is much smaller. Throughout the world, about thirty species
are known. They feed almost entirely on fish and, except one, are much
alike except for size. The rare Harris's Cormorant of the Galapagos
Islands cannot fly.
Since ancient times in China, cormorants have been tamed and trained
to catch and bring back fish to their owners, just as falcons were used to
catch game in midair or on land. Sometimes they were completely
domesticated, their eggs hatched under hens, and the young fed by hand
on chopped eel and other fish. Training started when they were fully
grown and feathered. One would be tied by a string to a stake at the
water's edge. At a whistle signal it was pushed into the water and tossed
a bit of fish. Then, after a different whistle, it was pulled back and
rewarded again. As soon as the bird got the idea, live fish were used.
Then it was graduated to a boat or raft and a string tied around its neck
so that it couldn't swallow the fish it caught. With several of these
trained birds, a Chinese fisherman was in business. The Japanese use
them for sport fishing and, in Elizabethan England, the Master of the
Cormorants was a member of the royal household.
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Update: June 2012