Cormorant

Last updated: December 20, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
© iStock.com/Wirestock

They can fly 35 mph and dive 150 feet below water.

Cormorant Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Aves
Order
Pelecaniformes
Family
Phalacrocoracidae

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Cormorant Conservation Status


Cormorant Facts

Prey
Fish, mollusks
Main Prey
Fish
Name Of Young
Chick
Group Behavior
  • Colonial Nesting
  • Flocks
Fun Fact
They can fly 35 mph and dive 150 feet below water.
Estimated Population Size
Millions
Biggest Threat
Environmental issues: pollution, loss of habitat
Most Distinctive Feature
Ability to dive and swim
Distinctive Feature
Long slender neck
Other Name(s)
Shag
Gestation Period
25-28 days
Wingspan
3.6 feet
Incubation Period
25-28 days
Age Of Independence
9-10 weeks
Age Of Fledgling
5-6 weeks
Habitat
Saltwater environments
Predators
Eagles, sharks
Diet
Carnivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
Favorite Food
Fish
Number Of Species
37
Location
All continents except Antarctica
Nesting Location
Trees, on the ground, on steep cliffs, on islands
Age of Molting
21-36 weeks
Migratory
1

Cormorant Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Yellow
  • Black
  • Orange
Skin Type
Feathers
Top Speed
35 mph
Lifespan
6-22 years
Venomous
No
Aggression
Medium

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Cormorants are a type of bird known for their ability to dive deeply underwater to hunt for fish. They are excellent swimmers and can remain underwater for several minutes at a time. Some species of cormorant are even known to swim to depths of 150 feet! In addition to their diving abilities, cormorants are also distinguished by their dark, glossy feathers and long, hooked bills. Some people also find it interesting that cormorants have been known to use tools, such as rocks, to help them break open the shells of their prey.

There are over 40 different species of cormorants found in nearly every country of the world. Their exact numbers are unknown but estimated in the millions. Because of their global success, they are not considered in danger of extinction, although specific species of them in certain areas of the world may be threatened or endangered because of local circumstances, including loss of habitat and the effects of pesticides and other pollutants on the natural envrionment.

Cormorant Amazing Facts

  • Cormorants can hold their breath several minutes and dive 150 feet underwater to catch fish.
  • They use different vocalizations to communicate, including honking or grunting.
  • Some species of cormorant are known to use tools, such as rocks, to help them catch their prey.
  • They are often seen perched on rocks or trees near bodies of water, with their wings spread out to dry.
  • Cormorants have elaborate courtship rituals, including bowing, wing flapping, and bill clapping.
  • These birds are often unpopular with fishermen because they are so efficient at catching and eating large numbers of fish.
Cormorant drying its wings
Cormorants are often seen perched on rocks or trees near bodies of water, with their wings spread out to dry.

©iStock.com/BrianLasenby

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Where to Find Cormorants

Cormorants are found in on every continent except Antarctica, and in nearly every country in the world. They are typically associated with bodies of water, such as rivers, lakes, and coastlines, and are often seen perched on rocks or trees near the water’s edge. They are also commonly found near fishing boats and other human settlements, as they are drawn to areas where there is a plentiful supply of fish. They can be seen even in landlocked areas, especially during seasonal migrations.

Scientific name

Cormorants are designated as part of the Aves class, Pelecaniformes order, and Phalacrocoracidae family. Phalacrocoracidae is a family of birds that includes more than 30 different species, all of which are known for their ability to dive deeply underwater to hunt for fish. Some of the most well-known species within this family include the great cormorant, the European shag, and the double-crested cormorant. The name Phalacrocoracidae comes from the Greek words “phalakros,” meaning “bald,” and “korax,” meaning “raven.” This refers to the fact that some species of cormorant have a patch of skin on their neck, which looks somewhat bald.

Cormorants are sometimes known by other names, depending on the region or species. For example, the great cormorant is also known as the black cormorant, the large cormorant, or the sea crow. The European shag is also known as the common shag or the blue-eyed shag. The double-crested cormorant is sometimes called the American cormorant, the water turkey, or the Florida cormorant. In some cases, cormorants are also referred to simply as “shags,” although this term is also used to refer to other types of birds. Additionally, some people may use the term “cormorant” to refer to any bird that is able to dive deeply underwater to hunt for fish, even if it is not actually a member of the Phalacrocoracidae family.


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Cormorants have dark, glossy feathers that are typically black, brown, or grey
Cormorants have dark, glossy feathers that are typically black, brown, or grey in color.

©iStock.com/Richard Constantinoff

Size, Appearance & Behavior

Cormorants are medium to large-sized birds, with most species ranging in length from about 24 – 40 inches. You can compare this to the length of a baseball bat, which is 29 – 34 inches long. Cormorants have long, slender bodies and long, hooked bills that are well-suited for catching fish. Cormorants have dark, glossy feathers that are typically black, brown, or grey in color. Some species also have white or yellow patches on their faces or breasts.

Cormorants are known for their ability to dive deeply underwater to hunt for fish, and they are skilled swimmers. These birds are well-adapted to their aquatic environments. They have long, streamlined bodies and webbed feet, which make them powerful swimmers and divers. Cormorants have waterproof plumage, which helps to keep them warm and dry when they are in the water. They also have special glands near their eyes that secrete an oily substance, which helps to keep their feathers waterproof. This adaptation allows them to spend long periods of time underwater in pursuit of fish, their primary food source. Additionally, cormorants have sharp, hooked bills that are well-suited for catching and eating fish.

The fishing abilities of cormorants makes them unpopular with some fishermen who have demanded the birds be controlled in their area to prevent them from catching all the fish. People use various means to try to scare them off, including balloons and noisemakers. Cormorants are very smart and quickly realize these do not pose a real threat, so the methods used have to be changed frequently. On the other hand, some fishermen in China use captive cormorants on tight leashes to catch fish for them.

In addition to their hunting behavior, cormorants are also social birds and are often seen in groups, especially when they are nesting. They use a variety of vocalizations to communicate with each other, and they perform a number of different courtship rituals.

Great cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) eating carp fish
Cormorants have sharp, hooked bills that are well-suited for catching and eating fish.

©iStock.com/CreativeNature_nl

Evolution and History

Birds similar to the cormorant lived during dinosaur times. The earliest known modern bird of any kind, Gansus yumenensis had a very similar body structure as the cormorant. Researchers have not worked out the evolutionary history of cormorants, but believe that they originated in the southern hemisphere, perhaps even in Antarctica, before it was covered in ice. They may have diverged from a related species, the darter, during the Late Oligocene period, 33.9 – 23.03 million years ago.

The first “modern” cormorants are thought to have emerged during the late Paleogene period from 66 – 23.03 million years ago right after the dinosaurs went extinct. At the time, much of Europe and Asia were covered in shallow seas. Cormorants might have been a freshwater species from south Asia. From there, they spread around the Eurasian landmass and the world.

Cormorant Habitat

Cormorants are waterbirds that are found on every continent except Antarctica. They are typically associated with coastal areas, but they can also be found on inland lakes and rivers. Cormorants are adept swimmers and divers, and they often nest near water in colonies with other cormorants or waterbirds. Some species of cormorants are found in tropical regions, while others are found in temperate or cold climates. In general, cormorants prefer shallow waters with abundant fish populations and access to nesting sites on shores or in trees.

Cormorants are migratory birds, which means that they move from one place to another at different times of the year. The specific migration patterns of cormorants can vary depending on the species and the region in which they live. Some cormorants may migrate long distances between their breeding and wintering grounds, while others may only move short distances. In general, cormorants migrate in response to changes in temperature and food availability. As the weather gets colder, cormorants may move to areas where the water is not frozen and where there is an abundant supply of fish to eat. Some cormorants may also migrate to avoid competition for food and nesting sites with other cormorants.

Cormorants near water
Cormorants are adept swimmers and divers, and they often nest near water in colonies with other cormorants or waterbirds.

©Gary A. Edwards/Shutterstock.com

Cormorant Diet

Cormorants are carnivorous birds that primarily feed on fish. They are skilled swimmers and divers, and they use their sharp, hooked bills to catch and eat a variety of fish species. Cormorants may also eat other aquatic animals, such as crustaceans, mollusks, and amphibians, depending on what is available in their environment. In some cases, cormorants may also eat small mammals, birds, and reptiles if they can catch them. Cormorants are opportunistic feeders that will eat as much food as they can find and digest. A cormorant may eat several small fish in a day, or it may eat one large fish and not need to eat again for several days. In general, cormorants have a varied diet that is based on the availability of food in their environment.

Predators, Threats, and Conservation Stats

What eats the Cormorant?

Cormorants are prey for a variety of animals, depending on where they live and their stage of life. For example, adult cormorants may be preyed upon by larger birds of prey, such as eagles, owls, and hawks, which may attack and eat them. Cormorants may also be preyed upon by large fish, such as sharks and barracudas, which may attempt to eat them while they are in the water. Juvenile cormorants, or chicks, may be preyed upon by a variety of animals, including other birds, mammals, and reptiles. The specific predators of cormorants can vary depending on the region in which they live and the availability of food.

What threats does the Cormorant face?

Cormorants face a variety of threats, some of which are natural and others of which are caused by human activities. Some of the natural threats to cormorants include predation, disease, and adverse weather conditions. Cormorants may also face threats from human activities, such as habitat loss, pollution, and overfishing. These threats can impact the population size and distribution of cormorants, and in some cases, they may even lead to the extinction of certain cormorant species. It is important for conservationists and wildlife managers to monitor the population size and health of cormorants in order to identify and address potential threats to the species.

What is the conservation status of the Cormorant?

Overall, cormorants are very widespread and their conservation status is “Least Concern.” However, there are over 40 species of them and some are at greater levels of threat depending on local environmental factors.

The legal protection of cormorants can vary depending on the region in which they live and the specific species of cormorant. They are protected by law in many countries and regions around the world. For example, in the United States, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 provides protection for many species of cormorants, as well as other migratory birds. This law makes it illegal to hunt, kill, or capture cormorants without a permit. In other countries, cormorants may be protected by national or regional laws that regulate hunting and habitat conservation. These laws are designed to protect cormorants and other wildlife species from harm and to promote the conservation of natural habitats.

Swimming cormorant
Cormorants have special glands near their eyes that secrete an oily substance, which helps to keep their feathers waterproof.

©iStock.com/Wirestock

Reproduction, Babies and Lifespan

Cormorant Reproduction

Cormorants are colonial birds that typically nest in large groups or colonies. The specific mating rituals of cormorants can vary depending on the species and the region in which they live. In general, cormorants form pairs during the breeding season and engage in a variety of courtship behaviors in order to attract a mate. These behaviors may include singing, dancing, and displays of brightly-colored plumage. Cormorants may also build nests together, using materials such as sticks, twigs, and leaves.

Once a pair of cormorants has formed a bond, they may mate and lay eggs. The number of eggs that a cormorant lays can vary depending on the species of cormorant and the individual bird. In general, cormorants lay between two and six eggs per clutch, with most species laying three to four eggs. The eggs are typically laid at two-day intervals, and the female cormorant will incubate them until they hatch. The incubation period can vary depending on the species and the climate, but it is typically between 25 and 30 days.

Magellan Cormorants in nest
Once a pair of cormorants has formed a bond, they may mate and lay eggs and the female cormorant will incubate them until they hatch.

©iStock.com/THIERRY EIDENWEIL

Cormorant Babies

Cormorant chicks are born blind and covered with downy feathers. They are typically altricial, which means that they are born helpless and rely on their parents for food, warmth, and protection. Chicks will be cared for by both parents, who bring them food in their bills. The specific diet of cormorant chicks can vary depending on the species of cormorant and the availability of food in their environment. In general, cormorant chicks are fed a diet of small fish, crustaceans, and other aquatic animals that are easy for them to swallow and digest. The parents will bring the food back to the nest and regurgitate it for the chicks to eat.

As the chicks grow and develop, they begin to forage for food on their own under the guidance of their parents. After 3-4 weeks chicks start leaving the nest but return to it to feed. At 5-6 weeks they start flying and at 9-10 weeks they are completely grown and independent, able to hunt alone and feed themselves.

Cormorant with baby chicks
Cormorant parents will bring food back to the nest and regurgitate it for the chicks to eat.

©iStock.com/Prensis

Cormorant Lifespan

Cormorants can live as long as 22 years, but typically live to just 6 years old in the wild. Some of the common health problems that cormorants may face include disease, injury, malnutrition, and parasitism. Cormorants may be susceptible to infections or diseases that affect their respiratory, digestive, or reproductive systems. They may also be injured by predators, other animals, or human activities. Cormorants may suffer from malnutrition if they do not have access to a sufficient supply of food. They may also be parasitized by insects or other organisms that feed on their blood or tissues. In general, cormorants are resilient animals, but they can still be affected by a range of health problems.

Cormorant Population

The full global number of cormorants is unknown because there are so many species located in every continent of the world except Antarctica. It is safe to say they number in the millions and their overall population is stable. Although overall they are not considered to be threatened with extinction, some species of cormorants may be rare or declining in certain regions due to habitat loss, pollution, and other human activities.

Similar Animals to the Cormorant

  • Pelican – Compared to cormorants, pelicans are larger, fly better, and have a large pouch beneath their bills to aid in fishing. They are not as agile in the water as cormorants are.
  • Heron – A water bird like the cormorant with similar diet. It is larger than the cormorant and does not have waterproof plumage, so it is less adapted to diving and swimming.
  • Ibis – The Ibis feeds on fish and other aquatic animals, but it is a wading, freshwater species instead of a diving seabird.

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About the Author

I'm a freelance writer and a lifelong animal lover. I've traveled the world, but the high point for me was riding an elephant in Nepal. Currently I'm an "Emotional Support Human" to 3 dogs, 1 cat, and 3 guinea pigs. My favorite wild animal is the quokka, the most selfie-friendly animal in the world.

Cormorant FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

What is special about cormorants?

They are found in almost every country of the world. They are amazing swimmers and divers. They are extremely smart, sometimes herding fish to help them hunt and using rocks as tools to kill their prey.

Are cormorants aggressive?

Cormorants aggressively hunt fish with great success, which makes them unpopular with many fishermen. They also attack other birds and may steal food and nests from them. They are not usually aggressive toward humans, although there have been anecdotal stories of individuals attacked when they inadvertently startled a bird while it was hunting.

How do you scare off cormorants?

Some non-lethal ways people have tried to scare off cormorants include balloons, wires, or floating ropes, or noisemaking devices. The methods used have to be changed unpredictably so that the birds don’t get used to them and ignore them.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.

Sources
  1. European Commission: Environment, Available here: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/cormorants/faq.htm
  2. US Fish and Wildlife Service, Available here: https://www.fws.gov/law/migratory-bird-treaty-act-1918#:~:text=The%20Migratory%20Bird%20Treaty%20Act%20(MBTA)%20prohibits%20the%20take%20(,U.S.%20Fish%20and%20Wildlife%20Service.
  3. Wikipedia.org, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cormorant
  4. Birds of the World, Available here: https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/species/doccor/cur/introduction#:~:text=In%20P.,slower%20in%20Double%2Dcrested%20Cormorant.
  5. The Washington Post, Available here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2002/02/24/feisty-cormorant-is-no-fine-feathered-friend/94e5f256-b912-4fdb-95ca-daf6bde25fec/

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