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A familiar shape and sight around inshore harbours, lakes and rivers 

Photograph by: 
Peter Orchard

Cormorant: hung out to dry

We must all have seen a cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) doing this but why do they do it? Conventional wisdom says it is to dry their wings which obviously get saturated after they have been diving. This may well, of course, be very true but it raises the question that why do cormorants need to do it when other diving birds do not? You never see duck or grebes, for example, drying their wings after a fishing expedition. The answer could well be that the cormorant has much bigger wings and. as it spends more time flying than a duck or a grebe, then drying them out is more important.

I have, however, heard a theory that this posture aids their digestion. Cormorants swallow their catch whole, head first, and it takes a good while to get the fish right down the throat and in to the stomach. Holding out its wings like this opens the passage way and eases the flow. There may be truth in both of these.

The cormorant is very common on the land-locked harbours of Dorset; that is Poole harbour and Chrstchurch. They are also commonly seen on larger lakes and rivers, notably Radipole Lake in Weymouth. Along the higher, rocky cliffs of the Purbecks they are replaced by their more seafaring cousin, the Shag.


Common Name Cormorant
Scientific Name Phalacrocorax carbo
Species Group Birds Shearwaters Petrels Auks and Cormorants
Status Frequent
Interest Level
  • 01 - January
  • 02 - February
  • 03 - March
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 06 - June
  • 07 - July
  • 08 - August
  • 09 - September
  • 10 - October
  • 11 - November
  • 12 - December
Look for

Large prehistoric-looking black birds in harbours and on rivers

Identification Notes
  • Although looking entirely black cormorants and really dark brown and have white facial markings and young ones have white fronts
  • You can see cormorants diving for fish on open water, flying up river courses and even sat in trees
  • After fishing they like to find a handy perch and hang their wings out to dry
Primary Habitat
Preferred Environment
Look for
Additional Identification Notes
Similar Species

The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Notebook Distribution Map Sites List Some Charts Some Photographs Recent Records Guidance Notes

To see related species click here: 

Birds Shearwaters Petrels Auks and Cormorants