A Beauty, Not a Beast

Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) sunning at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge


If beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, so, too, might ugliness. Underwater, the cormorant’s a swift, graceful predator: astonishing in its ability to glide and dive, sweeping up uncounted fish in the process. But once it exchanges the water for land, many consider the bird — songless, lacking in bright colors, awkward and somewhat ill-proportioned — to be as ugly as any on the planet.

When I had the opportunity to spend some time with a remarkably accepting cormorant recently, a closer look revealed some interesting, and even attractive, characteristics.

Its lightly serrated beak, hooked at the end, allows it to hold its prey firmly. Why this one continually opened and closed its beak while I watched, I can’t say; perhaps it was showing off for the camera.

Its long, flexible neck, capable of twisting and bending like a heron’s, allows it to preen even the most hard-to-reach feathers. Secretions from its uropygial gland, more commonly known as the preen gland, are composed of  a mixture of waxes, fatty acids, lipids, and water.

As the bird preens, rubbing the glandular secretions through its plumage,  some waterproofing may take place, but the primary benefit is to keep its feathers supple and in good condition. The familiar spread-wing posture cormorants assume when out of the water generally is agreed to be a method of feather drying.

For years, I saw cormorants only at a distance, and assumed them to be pure black. Instead, their feathers are a mixture of brown and black, with occasional flashes of iridescence. The brown head feathers, thick and velvety,  are especially attractive, and help to set off their turquoise eyes. Sitting eye-to-eye with such a placid and receptive creature is an uncommon treat.

Comments always are welcome. For a poem dedicated to this fine bird, see my current post at The Task at Hand.



58 thoughts on “A Beauty, Not a Beast

    1. Oh, I don’t know. There’s a certain millipede I know that’s pretty far down on the attractiveness scale — at least from my point of view. As for people, you’ve reminded me of a phrase I’d never heard until I moved to Texas: “Don’t be ugly.” It doesn’t have anything to do with appearance. Another phrase that’s very close to its meaning is, “Be sweet.” In other words, as my mother used to say, “Behave yourself!”

    1. I enjoy seeing them against a backdrop of sky or water. They’re not so common at this refuge, where ducks and wading birds predominate in the shallower waters, but recent rains may have brought enough additional water to the ditches and canals that the cormorants can fish without bumping their beaks on the bottom.

    1. I confess to being perplexed. When I went line by line through postings since the beginning of January, I found only two semicolons, although the exercise did suggest the humorous possibility of an editing exercise called a semicolonoscopy.

      That aside, I’m sure I’ve scattered a few here and there since beginning Lagniappe since I don’t take Kurt Vonegut’s advice so literally these days. I did enjoy re-reading that linked article. I’ve had it in my files for years; thanks for bringing it to mind.

      1. “Semicolonoscopy” is a great coinage; congratulations! And yes, the article you linked to is fun; I think you pointed me to it once before.

        When I put a semicolon into the Search field on Lagniappe it returned three hits. One of them was in a reply of yours to a comment, rather than in the text itself.

        1. Ah. A comment. That explains that. And despite my delight in my own cleverness, I see now that “semicolonoscopy” is almost commonplace in certain circles. It even has its own hashtag on Twitter, which is a sign of something. Of course, the Oxford comma has a hashtag, too, as well as #promiscuoushyphenation. What a world.

    1. That’s true in so many ways, isn’t it? I was glad for the chance to see this cormorant at close range. So often I see them only on pilings with their wings spread, or half-submerged in the water, and details are hard to pick out.

  1. I find cormorants more handsome than beautiful, but tremendously striking and elegant. I love their beak and your photos showing better detail of the color are terrific, Linda. Certainly not ugly birds but ones with grace and flexibility. You either have one heck of a zoom and fast shutter or found a remarkably “tame” or available cormorant. Lucky you!

    1. If you look at the top photo, you can just see the edge of the water control valve he was sitting on. It’s next to the road, and I was in my ‘mobile bird blind’ — or car, as most people call it. I did have my telephoto lens on, since I expected to need it at the ponds, but it barely was extended at 80mm. I did use a faster shutter speed of 1/1250.

      Handsome is a good word, and probably more appropriate, but I was completely taken with the patterns in his feathers, and do think they’re beautiful.

      I didn’t realize how much of a problem they can be in your area (and the Great Lakes generally) until I read a comment on my other post and went looking for more information. We never see such large groups of them here, but apparently they gather at nesting sites in the thousands, and their droppings can completely wipe out vegetation. Here’s an article from Michigan NPR that was amazing to read.

  2. I like the descriptive above of “more handsome than beautiful” and certainly agree that this one posed well so that you could brag about its kind of beauty. It’s not a headturner of a bird, but a bird worth noting.

    1. As I told Jeanie, it was the patterns in the feathers that most caught my attention. I’ve always seen them as “just there,” and being close enough to see the details was amazing. I think I’d say, “Handsome bird, beautiful feathers.” Well, and there is that turquoise eye. It didn’t show quite so colorfully here, but it is like a little gem.

  3. You had me at turquoise eyes! I think I’d have enjoyed getting to “visit” with this bird up close as you did. He seemed to enjoy your interaction, too!

    1. He didn’t show one bit of an inclination to take off. In fact, after taking dozens of photos, I finally decided to move on down the road and left him there, still sitting on his perch.

      I wish I’d done better at capturing his eye color, but moving around for a different vantage point probably would have sent him flying. The color really is gorgeous. I might have thought it was photoshopped, but there are so many images of those eyes from reputable sources that it’s obvious they really are that vibrant. Just today, I learned that the inside of their mouth is blue. That’s my next challenge!

  4. An ugly bird? Well, not in my opinion. I really like birds, no matter the species- domestic or wild. I have read articles about how some fisherman feel disdain for the cormorant but as in all things inherent in the environment and nature, there is a place for everything. It is only when there is an imbalance in the natural world that causes things to go awry.

    I like the excellent shots of the cormorant. It appears that your subject matter really decided to give you a superb field day with your camera. This bird is quite the handsome one.

    1. Cormorants can be a real problem because of the imbalances you mention, but from what I’ve read, they’re more of a problem around their breeding grounds in the north than they are in our area. It’s not so much that they consume more than their fair share of fish, it’s that the amount of droppings around their nests kill vegetation and are unbearably smelly. A neighborhood down the road from me has the same problem with night herons. They’re very nice birds, but you don’t want dozens of them roosting in your trees.

      The largest colony of cormorants I’ve seen here roosts on power lines above Highway 146 in Kemah. I suppose there could be 150 birds, although I’ve never tried to count them. They’ve roosted there for at least twenty years, although I’m sure the membership of the group’s changed over time.

      I was quite surprised that the cormorant was so receptive. A car can function very well as a mobile bird blind, although it took me some time to figure out that shutting off the car’s engine is important, too. It’s not that the sound bothers the birds; it’s that the vibration causes camera shake. Live and learn.

  5. That last picture set off the variations in the wing feathers beautifully. Bright flowers and gaudy birds are so in-your-face obvious. Their beauty is lazy easy. Your second look at the cormorant shows that the more subtle levels of beauty can be even more rewarding for someone willing to do the work. I couldn’t help thinking how in the first picture, it’s wings look like mantis arms. Also photographing it against the vivid blue of the water makes the black so much richer by contrast. Another “black” animal that is actually not black at all, but a very, very dark brown.

    1. I was surprised by the amount of brown in its feathers, and by the sheared look of those on its head. They remind me of the mouton jacket I wore in snow country and that’s still hanging in my closet, just in case. I was surprised by those wing feathers, too; the patterns are beautiful.

      Sunflowers, cardinals, bluebirds, roses: all of those do stand out, primarily because of their color. It’s easy to love the bright, cheery ones, but even the sparrows and cacti deserve our second and third looks. Since posting these photos, I’ve learned that the cormorant balances those dark feathers with a blue mouth. If or when I get a photo of that, you can bet I’ll be posting it. Getting its turquoise eye and blue mouth in the same photo would be something.

  6. I love the way they stand, with wings outspread, drying their feathers. Buzzards do a similar thing early in the morning before they start to fly. It’s great fun watching them swim by underwater in the relatively shallow waters of the Rio Cuale in Puerto Vallarta. My best-ever experience of watching cormorants under water was a group of a dozen or so chicks directly below me in the American River where it flows through Sacramento. Almost magic. –Curt

    1. I love watching them in our deep channels, too. It’s a great game: watching them submerge, then trying to decide where they’ll finally surface. Their ability to cover great distances underwater and to stay submerged for long periods of time is remarkable.

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen a chick. The Texas Breeding Bird Atlas says they do breed here, but primarily inland, as far north as the panhandle, and many travel farther north to the upper midwest and Great Lakes areas.

        1. We don’t have loons, but we have grebes galore, and they’re absolutely the quickest when it comes to disappearing. They’re also darned cute, and fun to photograph.

            1. I haven’t seen that. Coots, yes. It’s getting time for those critters to really get after it: the males already are chasing one another.

            2. Twitterpated: I’ve always loved that word, ever since some bird-watching friends of mine introduced me to it. And yes, the season will soon be here.
              It’s the Western Grebe that ‘walks on water.’ Don’t know it they make it down your way, Linda. –Curt

  7. It’s a treat for me to see these beautiful images of the obliging cormorant. I first met the cormorant, as a child, in The Story about Little Ping https://youtu.be/QNKBTOM4Whg The cormorants feature at about 3.28. The reason I remember the story to this day is probably because of my shock at seeing the rings around the birds’ necks.
    The link re the semicolon made me laugh. I am a semicolon junkie.

    1. Might you have mentioned the story about Little Ping elsewhere? I’ve never read it, but when I saw the illustrations, they seemed familiar. The use of cormorants for fishing is fascinating. In one video I watched, the birds clearly had been trained. With a large fish in their beaks, they’d swim right back to the boat, jump onto the pole that brought them into the boat, and then give up their fish in exchange for a smaller bit that they could swallow.

      Note that I’ve added a bit to the exchange about semicolons.

        1. The book may or may not be racist. To be honest, it never crossed my mind, even after watching the video you linked, and reading another article about the book. However: any reviewer who inserts randomly CAPITALIZED words into a piece, who misspells ‘cormorant,’ and who adds the line “Everything I say is a lie” to her piece isn’t going to get me to click the link to listen to the podcast.

          Besides, I’m still irritated about the renaming of the Wilder award, which took place because “Her works reflect dated cultural attitudes toward Indigenous people and people of color that contradict modern acceptance, celebration, and understanding of diverse communities.” It’s another instance of the erasure of history, and I have no time for that. If there are dated attitudes, perhaps we could explore them with one another, and see them in our new context, rather than simply erasing them. Now, more coffee!

            1. It’s already happening here. The first example I remembered was this one about Shakespeare. In most cases, it seems that the primary objection to his work is that it’s now irrelevant, and needs to be replaced by such gems as “vampires, cyborgs and popular films and TV shows.”

              Still, the impulse toward exclusion for objectional content is there. This Columbia University conflict over Ovid left me thanking all the gods that be — on Olympus or otherwise — that I’m not having to deal with such students.

              As a postscript: although Columbia eventually decided not to include so-called ‘trigger warnings’ in their course descriptions, they did remove Ovid’s Metamorphoses from the curriculum. Your daughter’s caught the cultural drift.

            2. And, yet, the cultural drift has taken many people to shows/films like Game of Thrones, Outlander, 50 Shades of Grey. where we get little warnings like Adult content, viewer discretion advised. For my money, I would rather watch cormorants. Far superior.

    1. Isn’t that the truth! Those beaks have to be exceedingly strong, not to mention the throat muscles. I’ve seen cormorants gulp down fish that are halfway down their throats while the tails still extend past that beak. They’re not ones to give up on a fish, no matter how difficult it is to swallow.

    1. I was surprised and delighted to find the bird willing to stay put for a while, and to be active enough to present those different poses. They can be sculpturesque, remaining absolutely unmoving for long periods. I’m glad this one was a bit more lively.

    1. It’s been a treat to see your cormorants, Vicki. I hadn’t realized there are so many species around the world. Each of them has its own pleasing (or at least noticeable!) characteristics; I’m glad you enjoyed this peek at our most common one.

  8. Very nice photographic study of this underappreciated handsome bird, Linda. I’ve always seen them as attractive, maybe it’s my own ugly duckling qualities (which never turned me into a beautiful swan) but a closer look reveals as you have done here. Their iridescent quality reminds me of grackles.

    1. I grew up hearing “handsome is as handsome does,” and I’d say you and the cormorant both do very handsomely! I’m always happy when I can produce a vaguely ‘artistic’ photo, but it’s a real joy when the camera brings a bit of the natural world closer, as it did with this bird. Sometimes I get the sense that the creatures are as curious about us as we are about them. It certainly seemed so with this one.

    1. There’s never been a day that I went out a-wandering that I didn’t find something of interest, but this bird was one of the best. While we don’t exactly speak the language of the creatures, there are times when a sense of communication does arise, and I’m always grateful when it does. Once I tired of taking photos, I began talking to him, and I swear he seemed to be listening. A bit of a conceit, perhaps, but still a delightful one.

  9. How well I rmember growing up/fishing with my father, and hearing him curse under his breath about those dang cormorants! Here they fish as well, though unless they are gobbling shrimp in a friend’s shrimp pond, no one curses our Neotropic Cormorant, which looks much like this one. Those blue eyes always amaze me!

    1. I remember your posts about that shrimp pond (or at least some shrimp pond) and can only imagine what a group of cormorants could do to one. Part of the problem with cormorants in the upper midwest has been the establishment of fish farms. They certainly prove that old adage about “if you build it, they will come.” I’m sure they feed well around here, but I’ve not heard people grump about them. They are nicknamed ‘water turkeys,’ which I suspect isn’t meant as a compliment.

      1. it’s not only cormorants.. great egrets, snowy egrets, night herons (in the daytime) white ibis, frigates, gulls.. there are thousands.. and then there are ducks that paddle around on normal ‘non harvest days’.. (green wing teal and white-cheeked pintails)

        1. I thought about you and your birdie hordes the other day. I looked up into a live oak and counted three night herons, four snowy egrets, and one blue heron. There aren’t many trees in the marina, and it’s been terribly windy. Perhaps it was any port in a storm. I’ve noticed that groups of different species will gather at the refuges on really windy days, too.

          1. such a joy to look up and see how they all
            gather – usually in polite clusters, yet usually in harmony. the snowys are so fun when attired in those showy plumes. those tend to be quite nasty to each other when rushing for a shrimp at harvest!

  10. Yes, they certainly have their attractive side….you did a great job of showing that. ;-) Would you believe we have 3 species here? The Pelagic can be really iridescent in the right light. I’m glad you had such a good session with your sitter! ;-)

    1. Here’s a fun fact for you: the cormorant was the model for some hood ornaments on Packard automobiles. The Packard is long gone, but the cormorant’s still with us. We don’t have the pelagic, but we do have the neotropic as well as the double-crested. Apparently it’s hard to spot the differences between them except during the mating season, when colors brighten, and such.

      I learned some interesting things about the circumstances that led to them being such a nuisance around the Great Lakes. I’ll add those on the other post.

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