Cormorants have wet wings

As I was driving home along the south arm of the Fraser River I saw a bird perched on a piling, holding its wings out to dry.

Any time you see a bird stretching its wings droopily crossways hereabouts you can be pretty sure it’s a cormorant. They are dark-coloured, long-necked birds, a couple of feet tall with a wingspan about twice that.

This one had its back to me, gazing out across the river watching for unwary fish. These coastal birds dive from the surface of the water, hoping to dine on small fish, eels or water snakes. Their bodies might seem awkward on land, but underwater they are designed for fast diving, propelling themselves rapidly with their feet. They can dive as deep as 45 metres but, unusually for diving birds, their feathers are not waterproof. This is one of those win/lose situations. Win – they can dive faster because their feathers don’t hold water bubbles. Lose – the nuisance of having to stand around after your dive, holding your wings out to dry.

If these birds with their long necks and short bodies look a bit prehistoric, that’s only natural – their ancestors date back to the time of the dinosaurs. The Romans called them ‘sea ravens’ and for the last 700 years some Japanese and Chinese fishermen have fished with them.

It works like this. The fishermen tamed the cormorants and carried them down to the waterside or to rafts balanced on a long bamboo pole. The fisherman would tie a cord around the cormorants long neck, not tight enough to restrict its breathing, but too tight for it to swallow a fish. Then the birds would dive down to catch a fish and the fisherman would retrieve it from the cormorants mouth. These days the fishermen have more modern technology, but they still demonstrate a little cormorant fishing to tourists.

The sea raven I saw, its long beak pointed patiently skywards, still looked prehistoric. I left it, wings still outstretched as if it had a personal clothes line, silhouetted against the water.

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