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Brandt's Cormorant, Phalacrocorax penicillatus
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Pelecaniformes
Family: Phalacrocoracidae
Reichenbach, 1850

The Phalacrocoracidae family of birds is represented by 38 species of cormorants and shags. Several different classifications of the family have been proposed recently, but in the one most commonly used, all but three species are placed in a single genus Phalacrocorax, the exceptions being the Galapagos' Flightless Cormorant, the Kerguelen Shag and the Imperial Shag.



There is no consistent distinction between cormorants and shags. The names "cormorant" and "shag" were originally the common names of the two species of the family found in Great Britain, Phalacrocorax carbo (now referred to by ornithologists as the Great Cormorant) and P. aristotelis (the Common Shag). "Shag" refers to the bird's crest, which the British forms of the Great Cormorant lack. As other species were discovered by English-speaking sailors and explorers elsewhere in the world, some were called cormorants and some shags, depending on whether they had crests or not. Sometimes the same species is called a cormorant in one part of the world and a shag in another, e.g. the Great Cormorant is called the Black Shag in New Zealand (the birds found in Australasia have a crest that is absent in European members of the species). Some modern classifications of the family have divided it into two genera and have tried to attach the name "Cormorant" to one and "Shag" to the other, but this flies in the face of common usage and has not been widely adopted.

The scientific genus name is latinized Ancient Greek, from phalakros (bald) and korax (raven). "Cormorant" is a contraction derived from Latin corvus marinus, "sea raven". Indeed, "sea raven" or analogous terms were the usual terms for cormorants in Germanic languages until after the Middle Ages, and the erroneous belief that these birds were related to ravens lasted at least to the 16th century:

"...le bec semblable ŕ celuy d'un cormaran, ou autre corbeau." (...the beak similar to that of a cormorant or other corvids."; Thevet, 1558).


Cormorants and shags are medium-to-large seabirds. The majority, including all Northern Hemisphere species, have mainly dark plumage, but some Southern Hemisphere species are black and white, and a few (e.g. the Spotted Shag of New Zealand) are quite colourful. Many species have areas of coloured skin on the face (the lores and the gular skin) which can be bright blue, orange, red or yellow, typically becoming more brightly coloured in the breeding season. The bill is long, thin, and sharply hooked. Their feet are four-toed and webbed, a distinguishing feature among the Pelecaniformes order.

They are coastal rather than oceanic birds, and some have colonised inland waters. They range around the world, except for the central Pacific islands.

All are fish-eaters, dining on small eels, fish, and even water snakes. They dive from the surface, though many species make a characteristic half-jump as they dive, presumably to give themselves a more streamlined entry into the water. Under water they propel themselves with their feet. Some cormorant species have been found, using depth gauges, to dive to depths of as much as 45 metres.

After fishing, cormorants go ashore, and are frequently seen holding their wings out in the sun; it is assumed that this is to dry them. Unusually for a water bird, their feathers are not waterproofed. This may help them dive quickly, since their feathers do not retain air bubbles.

Cormorants are colonial nesters, using trees, rocky islets, or cliffs. The eggs are a chalky-blue colour. There is usually one brood a year. The young are fed through regurgitation. They typically have deep, ungainly bills which make it obvious that they are related to pelicans.


For an alternative scientific classification, see Sibley-Ahlquist taxonomy.

  • Genus Phalacrocorax
    • Brandt's Cormorant, Phalacrocorax penicillatus
      Double-crested Cormorant or White-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus
      Great Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo
      Neotropic Cormorant, Phalacrocorax brasilianus
      Olivaceous Cormorant or Mexican Cormorant, Phalacrocorax olivaceus
      Pelagic Cormorant or Baird's Cormorant, Phalacrocorax pelagicus
      Red-faced Cormorant, Phalacrocorax urile
      Guanay Cormorant , Phalacrocorax bougainvillii (off Peru, guano collected from nesting colonies of this bird is used to produce internationally traded commercial fertilizer)
      Little Black Cormorant, Phalacrocorax sulcirostris
      Indian Cormorant, Phalacrocorax fuscicollis
      Cape Cormorant, Phalacrocorax capensis
      Socotran Cormorant, Phalacrocorax nigrogularis
      Wahlberg's Cormorant or Bank Cormorant, Phalacrocorax neglectus
      Temminck's Cormorant, Phalacrocorax capillatus
      Common Shag, Phalacrocorax aristotelis
      Rock Shag, Phalacrocorax magellanicus
      Long-tailed Cormorant, Phalacrocorax africanus
      White-breasted Cormorant, Phalacrocorax lucidus
      Crowned Cormorant, Phalacrocorax coronatus
      Little Cormorant, Phalacrocorax niger
      Pygmy Cormorant, Phalacrocorax pygmaeus
      Pitt Cormorant or Featherstone's Shag Phalacrocorax featherstoni
      Pied Cormorant or Yellow-faced Cormorant, Phalacrocorax varius
      King Shag, Phalacrocorax carunculatus
      Black-faced Cormorant, Phalacrocorax fuscescens
      Spectacled Cormorant, Phalacrocorax perspicillatus (extinct)
      Red-footed Shag, Phalacrocorax gaimardi
      Spotted Shag Phalacrocorax punctatus
      White-bellied Shag, Phalacrocorax albiventer
      Little Pied Cormorant, Phalacrocorax melanoleucos
      Stewart Island Shag, Phalacrocorax chalconotus
      Chatham Shag, Phalacrocorax onslowi
      Auckland Shag, Phalacrocorax colensoi
      Campbell Shag, Phalacrocorax campbelli
      Bounty Shag, Phalacrocorax ranfurlyi
      Flightless Cormorant, Phalacrocorax harrisi (previously Nannopterum harrisi) (confined to the Galapagos Islands where, through evolution, its wings have shrunk to the size of a penguin's flippers)
  • Genus Leucocarbo
    • Imperial Shag (Blue eyed Shag), Leucocarbo atriceps (Previously Antarctic, South Georgian, Heard, Crozet, and Macquarie Shags, Phalacrocorax bransfieldensis, georgianus, nivalis, melanogenis, and purpurascens.)
      Kerguelen Shag, Leucocarbo verrocosus (Previously P. verrocosus.)

The King Shag of New Zealand has a number of races previously considered as full species.

Cormorants' fishing

Humans have historically exploited cormorants' fishing skills, in China, Japan, and Macedonia, where they have been trained by fishermen. In Japan, traditional cormorant fishing can be seen in Gifu City, in Gifu Prefecture, where it has continued uninterrupted for 1300 years, or in the city of Inuyama, in Aichi Prefecture. In Guilin, China, cormorant birds are famous for fishing on the shallow Lijiang River. A snare is tied near the base of the bird's throat, a snare that allows the bird only to swallow small fish. When the bird captures and tries to swallow a large fish, the fish gets stuck in the bird's throat. When the bird returns to the fisherman's raft, the fisherman helps the bird to remove the fish from its throat. The method is not as common today, since more efficient methods of catching fish have been developed.

Cultural references

  • Cormorants feature quite commonly in heraldry and medieval ornamentation, usually in their "wing-drying" pose, which was seen as representing the Christian cross. The species depicted is most likely to be the Great Cormorant.
  • On the other hand, in Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan takes on the form of a cormorant.
  • Christopher Isherwood wrote the poem
"The common cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag,
The reason you will see no doubt
It is to keep the lightning out.
But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs."

His information about the bird's nesting habits shouldn't be relied on.


  • In addition to the comic verse quoted above, the bird inspired at least one other poet, Amy Clampitt, to write the sonnet below; it is not obvious which species she was referring to, since all members of the family share the characteristic behavioural and morphological features that the poem celebrates.
The Cormorant in Its Element
That bony potbellied arrow, wing-pumping along
implacably, with a ramrod's rigid adherence,
airborne, to the horizontal, discloses talents
one would never have guessed at. Plummeting
waterward, big black feet splayed for a landing
gear, slim head turning and turning, vermilion-
strapped, this way and that, with a lightning glance
over the shoulder, the cormorant astounding-
ly, in one sleek involuted arabesque, a vertical
turn on a dime, goes into the inimitable
deep act which, unlike the works of Homo Houdini,
is performed for reasons having nothing at all
to do with ego, guilt, ambition, or even money.
  • Colin Meloy mentions the cormorant in the song "The Island: Come and See, The Landlord's Daughter, You'll Not Feel The Drowning" on The Crane Wife, a 2006 album by the Decemberists.
  • In the video game Ace Combat Zero: The Belkan War, the Gelb Squadron is also known as "The Coupled Cormorants." The callsign of Gelb 2 (2nd Lieutenant Rainer Altman) is "Cormorant." Their squadron insignia includes a cormorant with goggles.


  • Thevet, F. André (1558): [About birds of Ascension Island]. In: Les singularitez de la France Antarctique, autrement nommee Amerique, & de plusieurs terres & isles decouvertes de nostre temps: 39-40. Maurice de la Porte heirs, Paris. Fulltext at Gallica

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