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Good Natured: Creepy and kooky, mysterious and spooky

Published: Friday, July 25, 2014 11:08 p.m. CST • Updated: Saturday, July 26, 2014 7:22 a.m. CST
Caption
(Photo provided)
A little creepy and a little kooky, double-crested cormorants are an increasingly common sight along the Fox River as well as assorted local ponds. Here a juvenile, identified by its lighter plumage, rests on recent warm day.

“They’re creepy and they’re kooky,

Mysterious and spooky,

They’re altogether ooky…”

Right about now, you’re probably fighting the urge to snap your fingers, hum along, and fill in the rest of the verse with “ ... The Addams Family.”

But, just this once, try substituting – and I know this is a mouthful: “Phalacrocoracidae.” Or, in English, The Cormorant Family.

Specifically, we’re talking about Phalacrocorax auritus, the double-crested cormorant – that creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky bird that is popping up all along the Fox River, as well as select marshes and neighborhood retention ponds.

Most people, upon seeing this bird in our area, do a double-take. Is it a loon without white markings? A black goose that sits in trees? Is it an anhinga, that southern bird known for perching with its wings spread wide?

The answers, in order, are: No. Nope again. And almost, but not quite.

Double-crested cormorants, or DCCOs, in birderspeak, have their own family but are closely related to anhingas. Both are primitive diving birds well-adapted to their ecological niche, which is consuming fish. But each uses a different technique: Anhingas prowl the depths and stalk their prey before stabbing it from the side with their pointy bill. DCCOs, on the other hand, use powerful muscles and unique webbed feet – the webbing extends across all four toes – to chase after their fishy quarry, which they snare with a serrated bill that is hooked on the end.

Also like anhingas, DCCOs have dense bones, an adaptation that functions like a weight belt on a diver and helps the birds stay below the water’s surface. It’s not unusual to see a cormorant paddling along with much of its body submerged, its neck and head the only parts protruding, somewhat Loch Ness monster-like, above the water.

Interestingly, neither anhingas nor DCCOs bird produce much preen oil – the compound ducks and other waterfowl use to enhance the water-resistant qualities most feathers naturally have. At first this might seem like a disadvantage, since DCCOs end up soaking wet every time they dive and swim. But if you think about it, this lack of water repellency is actually quite helpful. It prevents the birds from becoming buoyant and lets them pursue their prey with greater speed and agility.

The issue is when it’s time to leave the water. Like wet clothes, soggy feathers stay that way for a long time, unless they’re spread out to dry. That’s where the birds’ characteristic posture, with wings outstretched, comes in. It’s a little creepy and kooky, but, bottom line, it’s functional.

Cormorants tend to hang out in groups, and the sight of multiple dark birds perched in a tree, oriented toward the sun, wings akimbo, can be a little mysterious and spooky. Even raven-like. In fact, the latter part of cormorant’s genus name, -corax, means raven, and the name cormorant is a contraction of the term “corax marinus,” or raven of the sea.

Odd birds that they are, cormorants are not without their charms. Though their plumage is predominantly black, the birds have bright yellow-orange skin on their face and neck. Their eyes, if you can get close enough to see them, are a gem-like aquamarine, and during breeding season the inside of their mouth turns a deep Caribbean blue. It’s also during this period that the birds develop their namesake double crests – wispy plumes, one behind each eye.

Remember how Morticia Addams speaking French would drive Gomez wild? Cara mia! DCCOs also perform a number of elaborate courtship rituals, including wing waving, water dances and the delivery of nesting materials that can include sticks, vegetation, rope, nets and other debris.

Though breeding season has now passed, there are still plenty of interesting cormorant behaviors to observe – and plenty of places to see them. One popular hangout is in a dead tree on the east bank of the Fox River in Batavia. Head to the bike bridge between Wilson Street and the dam, and look up from the north side of the bridge. Chances are the cormorants will be there, looking down at you. Other likely places I’ve come across are Boy Scout Island in St. Charles and the retention pond by the Judicial Center at Peck Road and Route 38.

And thanks to alert reader Dr. Walter Thyng, we’re now aware of three cormorants that are frequenting the ponds at Peck and Campton Hills Roads, as well as the pond at the southeast border of James O. Breen Community Park.

We’ve got lots more stories and information to share, but these will have to wait until next week when we explore some of the controversies surround these fascinating birds. In the meantime, I hope you get a chance to see ’em. They really are a scre’em. The Cormorant Family.

• Pam Otto is the manager of nature programs and interpretive services at the Hickory Knolls Discovery Center, a facility of the St. Charles Park District. She can be reached at 630-513-4346 or potto@stcparks.org.

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