Talk about mixed up, and you might as well be talking about the Brandt's cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus). The sleek, slim black water bird looks like a cross between a crow and an eel. I’m not pointing fingers here, mind you. I myself am a cross between a golden retriever and an Alaskan husky. I’m just sayin’ I do find it odd that a cormorant is a close genetic relation to its boulder-sharing companion, the pelican—and not just by its proximity on a rock. Other than them both being birds, I’m hard pressed to see the connection.
Take flight for example. While a pelican flies with a kind of gliding grace, its neck neatly tucked back, a cormorant could really use a John Powers course on deportment in this department. Before take-off, it hurtles along the water’s surface (for up to 30 yards!) like Daffy Duck, neck outstretched, head slightly up, and wings constantly flapping. After take-off, it looks like it's struggling just to stay airborne but I must be missing something here because cormorant flight has been clocked to 50 miles an hour.
On the water’s surface, a pelican floats serenely high above the waterline, like a buoy. Again, I’m not casting dispersions but a cormorant is more like a leaky boat in that the only visible parts are a skinny neck and pointed head, (visualize a submarine with only its periscope up). My empathy gene tugs for a cormorant because it can’t even catch a break standing still. While perched cliffside around the Cove, it stands upright with its scrabbly wings spread out to dry, like its dong a Dracula impression. Not elegant.
When I compare a cormorant’s looks and behavior with those of a pelican, I get that I’m a winner in the genetic lottery. My lighter body and springy step are due to husky genes (I could have ended up lumbering along with a heavier body like a purebred golden). I gallop like a gazelle (husky) and swim like a fish (retriever) for miles without tiring (husky Iditarod), all while draped in a honey-colored fur coat (retriever).
My swim buddy, Judith, is more charmed by cormorants probably because she’s seen them under water. There, she says, is where a confident and graceful bird comes to life. Without a splash, the black bird slips below the surface, helped by small stones found in its gut used like a kind of diver's weight belt. A super skindiver, a cormorant can hold its breath for up to a minute. And those rag-tag feathers that Judith diplomatically describes as “loosely interwoven” apparently aren’t due to slipshod grooming but to make the bird more sinkable—one of those substance-over-style deals.
In terms of moving through the water, you might imagine that a cormorant literally as well as figuratively “flies” but no. It literally runs through watery space using big webbed feet like paddles. Although I have extensive experience with running, my gallop looks far different than a cormorant. With wings folded against its body and long, it moves in a disorganized way, its sinuous neck curving inquisitively from side to side at, well, breakneck speed. A pelican can’t do that. Me neither but then why would I?
I find Judith’s scuba stories barely believable but you have to decide for yourself. She was supposedly scuba diving down at 80 feet when a cormorant suddenly appeared practically on top of her, snatched up a squid with its beak, then nearly kicked her in the face on its return to the surface! Fun! Of course, when I spy a goodie on a walk, I’m told to refrain from grabbing “take-out.”
A Brandt’s cormorant ranges from southern Alaska to southern Baja, California, and one of its breeding grounds is in our Ecological Reserve. During spring and early summer, I see cormorants with strands of surf grass (emerald-green plants that live in the surf zone) dangling from their beaks as they take flight to the ledges and crevices that hold their nests in the rocky cliffs above the seven caves below Coast Blvd. The nests may be overflowing with plant matter because the birds recycle them from season to season, adding fresh grass each spring to the previous seasons' dried debris.
To catch a glimpse of a cormorant skindiving, stand on the cliffs overlooking the water or dog paddle in the water. Look for a low-riding black bird loafing on the surface, then keep your eyes peeled. If the water’s clear enough and you stay focused, you may see one descend. Miss the main event, and you'll be left viewing the leftovers—a vertical trail of bubbles released from its feathers. Pelicans can’t do that either.
A cormorant may at first glance seem drab, draped in basic black and waiting for the right accessory to finally get noticed. But now that I’ve taken time to look beneath the surface, as it were, as well as high up on a cliff ledge, I’ve upgraded my opinion on cormorants. A pelican it is not but then a cormorant has its own special charms to crow about.
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— Judith Lea Garfield, naturalist and underwater photographer, has authored two natural history books about the underwater park off La Jolla Cove and La Jolla Shores. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.