Cormorants: the facts and the myths.

A large and conspicuous waterbird, the cormorant has an almost primitive appearance with its long neck making it appear reptilian. It is often seen standing with its wings held out to dry. Regarded by some as black, sinister and greedy, cormorants are supreme fishers which can bring them into conflict with anglers and they have been persecuted in the past. The UK holds internationally important wintering numbers.

RSPB Website

Over 9,000 pairs of cormorants breed in UK, whilst over 40,000 winter here. It is always a joy to see them; especially in classic “wing-drying” pose:

Cormorant 1 ©HelenBushe
Cormorant 1 ©HelenBushe

Cormorants feature in heraldry and medieval ornamentation, usually in their “wing-drying” pose, which was seen as representing the Christian cross, and symbolizing nobility and sacrifice. For John Milton in Paradise Lost, the cormorant symbolizes greed: perched atop the Tree of Life, Satan took the form of a cormorant as he spied on Adam and Eve during his first intrusion into Eden.

Cormorant 2 ©HelenBushe
Cormorant 2 ©HelenBushe

But throughout history Cormorants have had good press as well as bad:

In some Scandinavian areas, they are considered good omen; in particular, in Norwegian tradition spirits of those lost at sea come to visit their loved ones disguised as cormorants. For example, the Norwegian municipalities of Røst, Loppa and Skjervøy have cormorants in their coat of arms. The symbolic liver bird of Liverpool is commonly thought to be a cross between an eagle and a cormorant.

In Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, Odysseus (Ulysses) is saved by a compassionate sea nymph who takes the form of a cormorant.

Cormorants ©HelenBushe
Cormorants ©HelenBushe

References in both literature and popular culture to cormorants are many and varied; from Sherlock Holmes to Jane Eyre to Monty Python!

One of my favourite “cormorant stories” is this:

In 1853, a woman wearing a dress made of cormorant feathers was found on San Nicolas Island, off the southern coast of California. She had sewn the feather dress together using whale sinews. She is known as the Lone Woman of San Nicolas and was later baptised “Juana Maria” (her original name is lost). The woman had lived alone on the island for 18 years before being rescued. When removed from San Nicolas, she brought with her a green cormorant dress she made; this dress is reported to have been removed to the Vatican.


Only in when the sun is at a certain angle, can the rich green of a cormorant’s feathers be appreciated:

Cormorant 3 ©HelenBushe
Cormorant 3 ©HelenBushe

One of my earliest bird-watching memories goes back to a trip to the west coast of Scotland with my first pair of binoculars. I watched a cormorant wrestling with an eel for a good ten to fifteen minutes. It was magical, and really exciting to watch, though I can’t remember if the eel escaped or the cormorant enjoyed its snack!

After this tussle, the cormorant sat on a rock in classic pose. Its stillness allowed me to make a definite identification as it looked exactly as portrayed in my “Bird Watching for Beginners Guide”. It was one of the first birds I ticked off in the index at the back, with confidence that I had got its name right.

Many thanks to Lisa and her Weekly Bird Challenge: Birds Beginning with C, for which I have so enjoyed putting this post together.


Ark · 15 January 2021 at 12:53

Smashing photographs, Helen.

Lisa Coleman · 14 January 2021 at 20:10

Beautiful shots and so glad to see you back! I really enjoyed reading the “good and evil” sides of the Cormorant and that your first bird when you began your birding adventure was a Cormorant. Last year, I watched through my binoculars a cormorant beat a fish to death and struggled with it for over 30 minutes. The fish was too big but the Cormorant wasn’t about to give it up. 🙂

    Helen Bushe · 15 January 2021 at 09:29

    Thanks Lisa. Weekly Bird Challenge is taking me back to many overlooked, but not forgotten, memories. it’s great to see all the entries from around the world and share our enthusiasm.

      Lisa Coleman · 16 January 2021 at 15:43

      We are excited to see your birds and glad you have an opportunity to relive some of those special moments. I’ve been doing the same plus getting new images when out birding. Best of both worlds. To see everyone else’s pics is just the icing on the cake. 🙂

I'm always pleased to read comments.....

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