Cormorants Clarified 21


Ever seen a V-shaped flock of black birds flying purposefully in the sky near a water body? Or a black bird sitting still with its wings spread out in a small village pond? Or a bird’s head sticking out of the water at a lake or pond? Did you notice any large colonies of black birds nesting on tall trees by a wetland? These were all probably cormorants!

From L to R: Little Cormorant, Great Cormorant (with wings open), Indian Cormorant. Little Cormorant is the smallest of the three cormorants while Great Cormorant is the largest. © Albin Jacob (See in checklist

From L to R: Little Cormorant, Great Cormorant (with wings open), Indian Cormorant.
© Albin Jacob (See in checklist)

A Great Cormorant © Pramod Dhal ( See in checklist

An adult Great Cormorant in non-breeding plumage
© Pramod Dhal (See in checklist)

There are three species of Cormorants regularly found in India. All three are widespread, with a largely overlapping preference in habitat and are often mistaken for each other. This article takes a step by step approach on distinguishing between the Little Cormorant Microcarbo niger, the Indian Cormorant Phalacrocorax fuscicollis (also known as Indian Shag) and the Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo

Head and bill: Shape and colours

Shape of head

Little Cormorant: The Little Cormorant has a small head which can appear rectangular due to the steep forehead. The bill is short.

Indian Cormorant: The Indian Cormorant has an elongated, oval-shaped head with a long, narrow and finer bill than the other two cormorants.

Great Cormorant: The Great Cormorant has a large head (and a much thicker neck than the other two cormorants) with a long but thicker and larger bill.

(From L to R) All in non-breeding plumage: Little Cormorant © Arindam Saha, Indian Cormorant © Praveen J, Great Cormorant © Albin Jacob

(From L to R) All in non-breeding plumage: Little Cormorant © Arindam Saha, Indian Cormorant © Praveen J, Great Cormorant © Albin Jacob

Colours on head

Little Cormorant: The breeding adult appears all black on the head, whereas a non-breeding adult has browner pouch and bill with some white on the chin. 

Indian Cormorant: The breeding adult appears glossy black with greenish-blue eyes and a white tuft on the ear-coverts. The non-breeding adult is browner with a yellowish gular pouch and white on throat.

Great Cormorant: The breeding adult has extensive white on head with a red spot at the base of the bill. The non-breeding adult has a yellow gular patch with white throat and cheeks.

Note: In breeding plumage, the Great Cormorant also has a white spot on the lower flanks.

(From L to R) All in breeding plumage: Little Cormorant © Albin Jacob, Indian Cormorant © Sanjay Malik, Great Cormorant © Shwetha Bharathi

(From L to R) All in breeding plumage: Little Cormorant © Albin Jacob, Indian Cormorant © Sanjay Malik, Great Cormorant © Shwetha Bharathi

Shape when perched

Little Cormorant: Smaller than the Indian Cormorant and appears stockier/more compact in built. The neck is short but the tail is proportionally the longest of the three cormorants.

Indian Cormorant: Most slender-looking of the three cormorants. Smaller than the Great Cormorant, with slimmer and longer neck and relatively long tail. 

Great Cormorant: The largest of the three cormorants, with a thick neck, large head and stocky appearance. The heavy beak and the short tail are quite apparent when it is perched as well.

(From L to R) Little Cormorant © Shreyan M L, Indian Cormorant © Hari Kumar, Great Cormorant © Harshith JV

(From L to R) Little Cormorant (non-breeding adult) © Shreyan M L, Indian Cormorant (immature) © Hari Kumar, Great Cormorant (non-breeding adult)© Harshith JV

Shape in flight

Cormorants are often seen moving around between waterbodies and are frequently encountered in unlikely habitats as they fly over. Cormorants can easily be told apart from other groups/species in flight but they are often the most difficult to ID to species in flight.

Little Cormorant: In flight, note the small size but proportionately long tail and short, thick neck, and the fastest wingbeats.

Indian Cormorant: May appear as big as a Great Cormorant or as small as a Little Cormorant, but is the most slender of the two with a long, thin neck and long tail.

Great Cormorant: This species appears quite large in flight with thick neck, short tail, heavy body and broad wings, with the slowest wingbeats.

(From L to R) Little Cormorant © Albin Jacob, Indian Cormorant © Albin Jacob, Great Cormorant © Albin Jacob

(From L to R) Little Cormorant (non-breeding adult) © Albin Jacob, Indian Cormorant (breeding adult) © Albin Jacob, Great Cormorant (immature) © Albin Jacob

Note: Although not always true, the following formula may be a quick way to ID the species when seen from directly below/sideways:

a. If the bird appears large; neck and tail appear short and the body is bulky, then the cormorant is likely to be a Great Cormorant.

b. If the neck is as long as, or shorter than the tail; and both neck and tail are almost as long as the body, then the cormorant is likely to be a Little Cormorant.

c. If the neck appears longer than the tail but the bird retains an overall slender look, then it is likely to be an Indian Cormorant.

Juvenile/Immature Plumage

Little Cormorant: Juveniles/immatures of the Little Cormorant have brown underparts with some pale mottling.

Indian Cormorant: Indian Cormorant juveniles and immatures have a paler breast and lower belly.

Great Cormorant: Juvenile/immature Great Cormorants are very distinctive with all-white underparts from throat down to the base of tail.

(From L to R) Little Cormorant (immature) © Rama Neelamegam, Indian Cormorant (immature) © Dr George P J, Great Cormorant (immature) © Vaidehi Gunjal

(From L to R) Little Cormorant © Rama Neelamegam, Indian Cormorant © Dr George P J, Great Cormorant © Vaidehi Gunjal

Habitat

All the three species are associated with wetlands and waterbodies across India.

The Little Cormorant may be found in small village ponds, garden ponds as well as large freshwater bodies such as rivers and lakes and even estuaries.

Cormorants in a large lake amongst other wetland species

Cormorants in a large lake amongst other wetland species
© Nate Swick (See in checklist)

The Indian Cormorant is a bird of larger freshwater wetlands and seems to do quite well even along mangroves and estuaries.

The Great Cormorant is usually partial towards larger wetland systems and waterbodies, and seems to be largely absent from parts of the western coast. 

Habits

Little Cormorants are generally not as gregarious as Indian and Great Cormorants. While Little Cormorants may usually be seen feeding singly or in small groups, larger congregations and loose flocks are also seen in bigger waterbodies.

Great Cormorants at roost

Great Cormorants at roost
© Sourav Maiti (See in checklist)

Both Indian and Great Cormorants tend to be quite gregarious. Great Cormorants form communal roosts even outside the breeding seasons and large numbers may be seen adorning tall trees around big lakes and rivers. They usually move and swim together as well.

Indian Cormorants are known to fish cooperatively – where a number of them gather in a big waterbody and round up fish and other prey items to eat.

A flock of Indian Cormorants fishing together
© Sivashankar Ramachandran (See in checklist)

Table: A quick glance at the differences

Little Cormorant Indian Cormorant Great Cormorant
Head Small with rectangular forehead Oval-shaped head Large and angular head
Beak Small Long and narrow Large and thick
Breeding plumage All dark All dark with white ear tufts Extensive white on head, flanks
Structure Compact with long tail, thick neck Slender with long tail and thin neck Heavily built with short tail and thick neck
In Flight Tail longer than or same as neck; compact Neck longer than or same as tail; slender Large with short tail and neck; broad wings
Juvenile/immatures Pale mottling on underparts Pale from breast down to belly White on breast down till vent

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