Friday, 12 January 2007


Cormorants have suffered bad press over the years. It seems as though every* English poet has tried to blacken the name of these splendid birds by equating them with greed and rapacity and generally anti-social behaviour.

When Edmund Spenser sent his hero, Sir Guyon, on a perilous sea voyage in The Faerie Queen (1590), he dotted the cliffs with voracious birds.

    For thy, this hight The Rock of vile Reproach,
    A daungerous and detestable place,
    To which nor fish nor fowl did once approach,
    But yelling Meawes with Seagulles hoars and bace,
    And Cormoyrants, with birds of ravenous race,
    Which still sit waiting on that wastfull clift.

(Hmmm...How much better would The Birds have been if du Maurier and later Hitchcock had subjected their characters to ordeal by cormorant?** There's a remake I'd like to see.)

William Shakespeare missed no opportunities to besmirch them***. His reference in Love's Labours Lost to time passing rapidly as if devoured by a cormorant was relatively benign compared to his use of the bird in Richard II.

    With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
    Light vanity, insatiate cormorant
    Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.

And after that line, John of Gaunt praises England.

    This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
    This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
    This other Eden, demi-paradise

... and so on. You know the quote. Funny that he should mention Eden because that's exactly where things get worse.

In Paradise Lost (1667), John Milton depicted Satan as a bird. What sort of bird? A chaffinch, perhaps? A weebill?

    Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life,
    The middle Tree and highest there that grew,
    Sat like a Cormorant; yet not true Life
    Thereby regaind, but sat devising Death
    To them who liv'd

What bird could recover from that slander?

But it's not all greed and demonic machinations. There's another side to the bird. Christopher Isherwood went some way to rehabilitating its good name.

Sort of.

    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.


* For very small values of every.

** Although it's a long time since I've read the story, so du Maurier may well have crammed it with wall-to-wall cormorants.

*** Cormorants, that is. Not du Maurier and Hitchcock.


Sophie said...

I love these little guys.

Swimming and freediving allows to see them and other sea birds from really close. A human head popping out of the water is quite small and not so threatening, so you can get a few meters from them.
When they dive they literally jump up a curved trajectory to enter the water really fast. My diving buddy saw one underwater once, I would love to see one too.

As they are very good at fishing, they tend to be followed by lazy gulls. The cormorant have got to flip the fish they have caught in order to gulp it down, and at that precise moment, the gull swoops and gets the fish. Bastard.

The European version :

Fishermen around here really hate them as their numbers have gone up again, and they go up rivers to fish. Asian and Japanese fishermen train them to fish for them, but the Japanese way includes putting a 'collar' so that they can't swallow their prey and must give them to the fisherman.

Pam in Tucson said...

Oh dear - I never knew that cormorants could be so maligned. Since our norm is desert, whenever I travel to the seacoast I'm always thrilled to see cormorants flying and fishing. This is a delightful post - love the Isherwood :)

Snail said...

Great photo, Sophie! We also have the European species (Phalacrocorax carbo) along our coast, although the ones I see most often around Melbourne are the little black and little pied cormorants.

What a privilege it must be to swim with them! I hope you get to see one underwater. That must be an extraordinary sight. They're such sleek birds.

I read somewhere that cormorants were used for fishing in parts of Europe in the late Middle Ages (and probably later in some regions).

Snail said...

The cormorants around here seem to be equally at home on the seashore and along river banks. Being close-ish to both habitats I see the birds quite frequently. But I still love watching them!

These two little black cormorants were perched on a cable across the Maribyrnong River. I once saw a mixed flock of these and little pied cormorants lined up along that cable. There must have been a couple of hundred of them, packed together like ... er ... sardines. No fish would have stood a chance!

Of course, I've never seen it again. But I still carry my camera everywhere, just in case.

Geoff_D said...

Maybe those poets got their cormorants mixed up with their gannets when assigning the greediness.


Snail said...

got their cormorants mixed up with their gannets

They should have referred to Olsen's Standard Book of British Birds!

sarala said...

It amazes me how people choose to hate wild animals for doing what they are made to do (with the possible exception of mosquitoes). I read a book as a kid called "Animals Nobody Loves" and since then have made a point of liking the unappreciated animals such as bats, rats, wolves, coyotes, the various scavengers and so forth.
So here is to tolerance of all species!

Snail said...

So here is to tolerance of all species!

I'm with you! (But I'm not so keen on the introduced cockroaches.)

Mike said...

I had no idea that cormorants were so maligned, and by such luminaries! US anglers seem to possess a seething, albeit misguided hatred of double-crested cormorants, correlating the birds' increasing populations with their own failings at catching fish.

Snail said...

I'm thinking about starting a movement to defame grebes. If the fluffy little devils won't sit still long enough for a photograph, I'm going to fight back.