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Cormorant: Characteristics, Diet, Facts & More [Fact Sheet]

Cormorants, with their sleek black feathers and impressive diving skills, have captivated human attention for centuries. These birds are renowned for their unique adaptations to aquatic life, enabling them to thrive in diverse water environments around the world.

This article serves as a comprehensive guide, unraveling the intriguing world of cormorants. From their classification to conservation efforts, we delve into the various aspects of their lives, providing a detailed understanding of these fascinating birds.

The Cormorant at a Glance


Class:Aves (Birds)

Essential Information

Average Size:70-102 cm (27.5-40 in) length
Average Weight:1.2-5 kg (2.6-11 lbs)
Average Lifespan:6-15 years
Geographical Range:Worldwide, primarily coastal areas
Conservation Status:Varies by species, from Least Concern to Endangered (IUCN Red List)

Species and Subspecies

Cormorants are not a monolithic group; they comprise several species and subspecies, each adapted to specific environments. Notable among these are:

  • Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo): Widely distributed, known for its large size and preference for coastal areas.
  • Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus): Recognizable by its double crest during the breeding season, prevalent in North America.
  • European Shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis): Smaller, with a more slender build and a glossy green sheen, found primarily in Europe.
  • Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi): Unique for its loss of flight ability, endemic to the Galápagos Islands.

Key differences lie in their size, plumage, and habitat preferences. The Great Cormorant, for example, is larger and has a broader geographic range compared to the more specialized, smaller European Shag. The Flightless Cormorant, meanwhile, showcases a remarkable evolutionary path with its adapted wing structure and aquatic lifestyle.

Great cormorant
Great cormorant


Cormorants are distinguished by their long necks, hooked bills, and webbed feet, ideal for their aquatic lifestyle. They exhibit a range of sizes, but generally, they have a body length of 70-102 cm (27.5-40 inches) and a wingspan that can extend up to 1.5 meters (5 feet).

Their plumage is predominantly black or dark, often with a metallic sheen. Some species, like the European Shag, display a glossy green tint.

Anatomically, cormorants are equipped with less preen oil than other water birds, allowing their feathers to get wetter and reduce buoyancy for easier diving. They are often seen with their wings outstretched to dry their feathers after swimming.

In terms of sexual dimorphism, males and females are similar in appearance, though males tend to be slightly larger.

Habitat and Distribution

Cormorants are found across the globe, predominantly in coastal regions, though some species inhabit inland waters. Their habitat includes estuaries, rivers, lakes, and coastal seas. They prefer areas with abundant fish, their primary food source.

  • Great Cormorants are widespread in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
  • Double-crested Cormorants are mainly found in North America.
  • The European Shag is largely restricted to the rocky coastlines of Europe.
  • The Flightless Cormorant is unique to the Galápagos Islands.
Cormorant spreading wings


Cormorants are diurnal, spending their days fishing and resting. They are exceptional divers, using their strong legs and webbed feet to propel themselves underwater.

Most cormorants are social birds, nesting in colonies and often seen roosting in groups. Some species, however, display more solitary habits outside the breeding season.

Cormorants communicate through a range of vocalizations, especially during the breeding season. They also use visual displays, such as wing-waving and bill-pointing, as part of their courtship and territorial behaviors.

Frequently observed holding their wings out in the sun, which is believed to help them dry their feathers and regulate body temperature.

Cormorants are also known for their diving abilities. They dive from the surface, using powerful leg thrusts to pursue prey underwater. Their dives can last up to a minute and reach depths of 45 meters (150 feet).

Diet and Feeding Behavior

Cormorants are predominantly piscivorous, meaning their diet mainly consists of fish. However, their specific dietary choices vary depending on the species and the available prey in their habitat.

  • Great Cormorant: Consumes a wide variety of fish, including eels and carp.
  • Double-crested Cormorant: Prefers smaller fish species like shiners and perch.
  • European Shag: Often hunts for sand eels and other small sea fish.
  • Flightless Cormorant: Feeds on octopuses and small fish near the sea floor.

Cormorants are skilled underwater hunters. They dive into the water, propelled by their powerful webbed feet, to catch prey with their sharp, hooked beaks.

Some species have been observed diving as deep as 45 meters (150 feet). After capturing their prey, they resurface to swallow it whole. Their ability to see clearly underwater aids in their hunting efficiency.


Cormorants face predation risks at various stages of their life cycle. Eggs and chicks are particularly vulnerable. Their natural predators include:

  • Land-based predators: Raccoons, foxes, and wild dogs often target eggs and nestlings.
  • Avian predators: Large birds of prey, such as eagles and hawks, can prey on juvenile and, occasionally, adult cormorants.
  • Marine predators: In some regions, sharks and large fish pose a threat to cormorants while they are diving or swimming.
Little pied cormorant
Little pied cormorant

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Cormorants are monogamous during the breeding season, with some species forming long-term pair bonds.

Nesting usually occurs in colonies, with nests constructed from sticks and seaweed on cliffs, trees, or ground. Courtship displays involve intricate rituals like mutual preening, bill pointing, and vocalizations.

Cormorants lay between 3 to 5 eggs, which are incubated by both parents for about 3 to 4 weeks.

Chicks are altricial, meaning they are born blind and helpless, requiring extensive parental care. Both parents feed the chicks through regurgitation. Fledging occurs at about 10 weeks, after which the young learn to hunt and gradually become independent.

Conservation and Threats

The conservation status of cormorants varies by species and region. However, they generally face challenges due to habitat loss, pollution, and in some areas, human-wildlife conflicts.

Current Conservation Status

  • Great Cormorant and Double-crested Cormorant: Generally stable, but some regional populations are under threat.
  • European Shag: Vulnerable in parts of its range due to pollution and overfishing.
  • Flightless Cormorant: Endangered, primarily due to its limited range and threats like invasive species and climate change.

Threats Faced

  • Habitat destruction due to coastal development.
  • Water pollution affecting fish populations.
  • Fishing net entanglement and overfishing reducing food availability.
  • Invasive species predation on eggs and chicks.

Conservation Efforts

  • Protected areas and wildlife reserves.
  • Monitoring and research programs.
  • Conservation education and community engagement.
  • Legislation and policies to reduce pollution and manage fisheries.

Fun Facts

  1. Drying Off: Cormorants are often seen spreading their wings to dry because their feathers get wetter than other water birds, aiding their diving ability.
  2. Fishing Partners: In some cultures, cormorants have been trained for fishing, a practice dating back centuries in China and Japan.
  3. Depth Divers: Some cormorant species can dive over 45 meters deep and stay underwater for more than a minute.
  4. Adaptive Evolution: The Flightless Cormorant is a prime example of evolution, having lost its ability to fly due to the lack of predators in the Galápagos.
  5. Symbolism: In many cultures, cormorants symbolize adaptability, resourcefulness, and cooperation.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long can cormorants live?

Cormorants typically live between 6 to 15 years, though this can vary based on species and environmental conditions.

Can cormorants fly?

Yes, most cormorant species are excellent flyers, with the notable exception of the Flightless Cormorant of the Galápagos Islands.

Why do cormorants spread their wings?

They spread their wings to dry them after swimming, as their feathers absorb more water than those of other water birds, aiding in their diving capability.

Do cormorants migrate?

Some cormorant species migrate seasonally, especially those living in colder regions, while others remain in the same area year-round.

How do cormorants catch their food?

Cormorants dive underwater, using their strong legs and webbed feet to chase and catch fish with their hooked beaks.

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