Friday, November 1, 2013

'Mere Cormorants'

I surprised myself, in reflecting on the last posting, to have referred to ‘mere cormorants.’ I overlooked my longstanding admiration for them as well as their felonious maritime reputation. These  plain-looking avians can out-swim a fish, run on water and fly away. Even at rest they never slouch, posing like Balanchine in basic black.

My personal art collection enjoys three tributes to cormorants. One of the first photographs I took on Cape Ann silhouettes a cormorant in solemn consideration of his allotted domain of water, air and rocks. It is a portrait of satisfaction with the equations of life.

Kay and I once commissioned a cormorant carving from local woodworker Richard Nutbrown. Richard assured us that the figure’s improbably large feet are accurately sized and located. Their configuration gives the bird a lethal advantage over small fish. I have looked down on one jetting beneath the water surface of a Halibut Point quarry like a torpedo with a hooked bill.

Brother Joel contributed to our household a photograph that contrasts graceful flight with hawk-like focus, a hungry cormorant skimming  over the waves at sunrise premeditating its predations.


We are in good company with our cormorant motif. The Packard Automobile Company offered a choice of three distinguished hood ornaments on its luxury models: Cormorant, Adonis, and The Goddess of Speed. The other two may  have evoked sensuality but Cormorant expresses grace, humility, and sublime aspiration.

Poetry dropped with a thud when I came across this partisan description on the Cornell Ornithology site:  “The gangly Double-crested Cormorant is a prehistoric-looking, matte-black fishing bird with yellow-orange facial skin.”  It reads like a dismissive judgment on a Halloween contestant.

Contrast that with the performance-oriented report in National Geographic Magazine last year of Imperial cormorants in Argentina diving 150 feet  to the seafloor to catch fish. Scientists had attached lipstick-size video cameras to follow the champions. Neither scientists nor editors shied from calling their subject Superbirds.

We kids fishing off the Lanesville rocks with a bamboo pole could count on catching cunners as soon as our periwinkle bait hit the water. Dad would fry up good-sized ones. Cunners aren’t there anymore. Cormorants patrol the waters. One friend of mine says cormorants weren’t so common in the old days when he and his buddies used to go gunning along the shore – and there were a lot more fish.

If ducks weren’t available, gunning cormorants was the sport. But you didn’t bring one home for dinner. A soup recipe attributed to Down East homesteaders involved nailing a cormorant to a shingle, leaving it in the sun for three days, then dropping the whole thing into a boiling pot for 6 hours, pouring off the broth, throwing away the bird and eating the shingle. Poultry they evidently are not.

Cormorants overfly us in V-shaped formations. Individuals alternate with the harder work at the head of the flock. All the rest get a bit of aerodynamic lift from companions ahead of them. Two species occupy the Cape Ann shoreline seasonally. The summer-dwelling Double-crested cormorants are still here in early November. Their orange cheeks flanked by white patches make them the fancier of the two, which are otherwise hard to tell apart.

Double-crested Cormorants

This week I tried to find an example of their cousin for a comparative photograph, to no avail. The Great, or European Cormorant will be the family’s principal winter resident. Its cheeks present a dingier, more yellow-white cast.

Cormorants ride lower in the water than most floating birds. Their outer feathers are less fully oiled and become wet, requiring picturesque drying time.  Chances are that this is not an oversight on Nature’s part, but may contribute to the birds hydrodynamic speed. Closer in the plumage is kept more watertight and warm.

The sum of these observations, conjectures, and appreciations is my determination to be careful in the future about referring to ‘mere cormorants.’

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful tribute to these much maligned maritimers. Thanks Martin.