A most striking sea cow

I was standing on the dock waiting for the ferry to cross back over Lake Champlain the first time I saw them.

Huge black birds. Stunning birds. More birds than I could possibly count.

If so common (well, common just beyond Burlington at least), why had I never seen them before? Although Vermont seems worlds apart when it comes to so many things, we must be able to share the same birds. Right?

This turned out to be a cormorant, a double-crested cormorant to be exact. This crest, however, can only be seen during breeding season and, even then, is described as very difficult to see. The name comes from the Latin corvus marinus and does mean sea cow. I don’t know why; I didn’t name it.

Actually, the cormorant is a slender bird with a long neck and a thin hooked bill that tilts up when it swims. It dives from the water’s surface to catch fish that, fortunately for it, have no commercial value. (More on that in a minute.) It usually dives from five to twenty-five feet down and can stay under water for over a minute though usually doesn’t. It generally surfaces before dining.

It’s interesting to note that these birds have been tamed and used for centuries in Asia to catch fish which it will then regurgitate for its master. This method is still practiced by the Japanese imperial household though only as a tourist attraction.

Once filled, a cormorant will make its way to land where it spreads its not-entirely-waterproof wings out to dry. (I have seen herons do this too, a really crazy sight especially when you don’t know why it’s happening.)

I have a photograph of a cormorant standing on my float with two geese. Neck is bent as is typical but this one is far smaller than its buddies. Its size is given as 33 inches long while geese can vary from 25 to 43 inches so either my geese are very large (and well fed) or this is a small cormorant. Up close, they’re big enough.

One has visited me five times, almost always in even-numbered years: thrice in September and once in each of May and June. I’ll be looking again.

I vaguely recall reading an article which I failed to keep on a hunting season for cormorants in New York state, I believe, around Lake Champlain and the St Lawrence River. They are inedible so the reasons for their planned destruction have to be their overwhelming numbers and that they apparently do enjoy the same fish as some of the fishermen. When having the required permit, up to 10 birds can be taken a day with possession limited to 20. (There are other things I also like that are allowed in the hunter’s sights. It’s OK as long as they don’t disappear entirely.)

Minnesota has a Cormorant Lutheran Church which seems to be doing very well.

I have also learned that, like migrating geese, cormorants fly in a V-shaped wedge but, unlike the geese, they traverse in silence. In fact, their only sounds is a deep guttural or, says one, piglike grunt.

They’re welcome here.

Susan Crossett has lived outside Cassadaga for more than 20 years. A lifetime of writing led to these columns as well as two novels. Her Reason for Being was published in 2008 with Love in Three Acts due this month. Information on all the Musings, the books and the author can be found at Susancrossett.com.