The Cormorant, Liverpool's Real Liver Bird
There is no consistent distinction between cormorants and shags. The names "cormorant" and "shag" were originally the common names of the two species of the family found in Great Britain, Phalacrocorax carbo (now referred to by ornithologists as the Great Cormorant) and P. aristotelis (the Common Shag). "Shag" refers to the bird's crest, which the British forms of the Great Cormorant lack. As other species were discovered by English-speaking sailors and explorers elsewhere in the world, some were called cormorants and some shags, depending on whether they had crests or not.
Sometimes the same species is called a cormorant in one part of the world and a shag in another, e.g., the Great Cormorant is called the Black Shag in New Zealand (the birds found in Australasia have a crest that is absent in European members of the species). Van Tets (1976) proposed to divide the family into two genera and attach the name "Cormorant" to one and "Shag" to the other, but this flies in the face of common usage and has not been widely adopted.
The scientific genus name is latinized Ancient Greek, from φαλακρός (phalakros, "bald") and κόραξ (korax, "raven"). This is often thought to refer to the creamy white patch on the cheeks of adult Great Cormorants, or the ornamental white head plumes prominent in Mediterranean birds of this species, but is certainly not a unifying characteristic of cormorants. "Cormorant" is a contraction derived from Latin corvus marinus, "sea raven". Indeed, "sea raven" or analogous terms were the usual terms for cormorants in Germanic languages until after the Middle Ages. The French explorer André Thévet commented in 1558 that "...the beak is similar to that of a cormorant or other corvid," which demonstrates that the erroneous belief that the birds were related to ravens lasted at least to the 16th century.
Cormorants and shags are medium-to-large seabirds. They range in size from the Pygmy Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pygmaeus), at as little as 45 cm (18 in) and 340 g (12 oz), to the Flightless Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi), at a maximum size 100 cm (40 in) and 5 kg (11 lb). The recently-extinct Spectacled Cormorant (Phalacrocorax perspicillatus) was rather larger, at an average size of 6.3 kg (14 lb). The majority, including nearly all Northern Hemisphere species, have mainly dark plumage, but some Southern Hemisphere species are black and white, and a few (e.g. the Spotted Shag of New Zealand) are quite colourful.
Many species have areas of coloured skin on the face (the lores and the gular skin) which can be bright blue, orange, red or yellow, typically becoming more brightly coloured in the breeding season. The bill is long, thin, and sharply hooked. Their feet have webbing between all four toes, as in their relatives.
They are coastal rather than oceanic birds, and some have colonised inland waters - indeed, the original ancestor of cormorants seems to have been a fresh-water bird, judging from the habitat of the most ancient lineage. They range around the world, except for the central Pacific islands.
All are fish-eaters, dining on small eels, fish, and even water snakes. They dive from the surface, though many species make a characteristic half-jump as they dive, presumably to give themselves a more streamlined entry into the water. Under water they propel themselves with their feet. Some cormorant species have been found, using depth gauges, to dive to depths of as much as 45 metres.
After fishing, cormorants go ashore, and are frequently seen holding their wings out in the sun. All cormorants have preen gland secretions that are used ostensibly to keep the feathers waterproof. Some sources state that cormorants have waterproof feathers while others say that they have water permeable feathers. Still others suggests that the outer plumage absorbs water but does not permit it to penetrate the layer of air next to the skin. The wing drying action is seen even in the flightless cormorant but commonly in the Antarctic shags and red-legged cormorants. Alternate functions suggested for the spread-wing posture include that it aids thermoregulation, digestion, balances the bird or indicates presence of fish. A detailed study of the Great Cormorant concludes that it is without doubt to dry the plumage.
Cormorants are colonial nesters, using trees, rocky islets, or cliffs. The eggs are a chalky-blue colour. There is usually one brood a year. The young are fed through regurgitation. They typically have deep, ungainly bills, showing a greater resemblance to those of the pelicans', to which they are related, than is obvious in the adults.