Someone recently explained to me that they had seen an all-black bird on an area lake that was between a duck and goose in size. The bird dove into the water and came up with a fish in its beak. If you know your birds, you are probably thinking it was a double crested cormorant, and you are probably right.
Cormorants are large black water birds. The double crested cormorant, our only cormorant, has an orange throat patch, and its beak, unlike that of a duck or goose, is longer with a sharply down-turned tip. Cormorants are occasionally confused with ducks or geese as well as loons which are similar in size.
Cormorants can be easily identified by their orange throat patch, and when the bird is on the water it holds its beak slightly upwards. Loons on the other hand hold their beaks horizontal, lack the orange throat patch, and have a light breast, light neck band, and white spots on their back Another characteristic that can help in identification is the social habits of the two species. Loons are territorial and seldom observed in flocks, while cormorants are generally observed in flocks, occasionally in association with pelicans.
The double crested cormorants can be found near most large reservoirs across the state such as Sakakawea, Ashtabula, Jamestown Reservoir and others. Natural lakes such as Devils Lake, Chase Lake, and some lakes in the Turtle Mountains support populations of cormorants.
Cormorants are colonial nesters, and the number of nests in a colony may be quite large. Robert Stewart in his Breeding Birds of North Dakota noted that a colony at Chase Lake in 1967 consisted of 500 nests. Another interesting aspect of cormorant nesting colonies is that they may select islands or large dead tree.
Cormorants are commonly observed during the summer feeding on fish and salamanders in many lakes around the state. Their appetite for fish has put them at odds with anglers and some fisheries managers. Some of you may have heard about the controversy surrounding a large cormorant population eating game fish on Leech Lake in Minnesota.
If you live by some lakes or marshes, you may observe some cormorants during the fall waterfowl migration. So be on the lookout for these interesting birds.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.