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Phalacrocorax pelagicus - Pelagic Cormorant

Pelagic Cormorant image

Geographic range:

Bering Sea, Alaska, to northern Baja Peninsula, Mexico

Key features:

Delicate, all black water bird. White, flank patches in plumage when breeding.

Similar species:

Gavia immer -- Common loon
Gavia stellata -- Red throated loon
Gavia pacifica -- Pacific loon
Gavia adamsii -- Yellow-billed loon
Phalacrocorax auritus -- Double-crested Cormorant
Phalacrocorax penicillatus -- Brandt's Cormorant


bay (rocky shore), exposed rocky shore, kelp forest, protected rocky shore

Primary common name:

Pelagic Cormorant

Synonymous name(s):

Leucocarbo pelagicus

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:


Geographic Range

Range Description:

The Pelagic Cormorant is found on the coasts of the northern Pacific Ocean, preferring rocky coasts to sandy coasts and bays. They are exclusively marine, usually occurring close to shore. These cormorants are poorly named, as they are not pelagic (occurring in the open sea) at all but stay very near the coast. They breed on small, offshore islands and rocky cliffs with deep waters below. An exception is a colony that began in 1971 and nests under buildings along Cannery Row in Monterey. In 2001, 54 nests were counted in this colony. There is also a new, small colony on the pilings of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This cormorant is also found in northeastern Asia.

Subtidal depth notes:

Can dive to depths of at least 55 m using their webbed feet for propulsion.


bay (rocky shore), exposed rocky shore, kelp forest, protected rocky shore


Relative abundance:

Common in Monterey Bay.

Species Description

General description:

The Pelagic Cormorant is a small, slender black water bird of the Pacific Coast. The MBNMS area hosts 3 species of cormorants: Brandt’s, Pelagic, and Double-crested. The Pelagic Cormorant is the smallest and most delicate appearing of these three. The Pelagic Cormorant has a long body, a long, slender neck, and slender blackish-brown bill that is close to 2 inches long and either blunt or hooked at the tip. Its head is almost as slender as the neck. The tail is relatively long. Its body of glossy black plumage reflects hints of metallic green and violet-bronze in certain lighting. The neck reflects violet-purple. In breeding plumage white patches appear on its flanks. At this time the gular region (facial skin), which is normally black, becomes red from the base of the bill to the eye. The eye is yellow-green to deep sea green. During breeding season adults also develop two (difficult to see) tufts to the crown and nape and they may also develop long, white plumes on their necks. The legs and webbed feet are black. Males are slightly larger than females. The sexes look alike. In flight they hold their necks outstretched, creating a straight profile. When perched, they often spread their wings to dry. Immature Pelagic Cormorants are brownish and lack the glossy plumage and crests of the adults. Pelagic Cormorants are not naturally water-proof and must spend time preening and grooming their feathers with oil collected from a gland at the base of the tail.

Distinctive features:

Smallest of the Pacific coast cormorants. All black with white flank patches in breeding season. Nests on cliffs or high, rocky perches.


• Size: 51-76 cm (20-30 in) • Wingspan: 100-121 cm (39-48 in) • Weight: 1.37-2.440 kg (48.36-86.13 ounces)

Natural History

General natural history:

Although it occurs exclusively in marine habitats, the name 'pelagic' is misleading, since it prefers inshore areas rather than the open ocean. Of all the cormorants, the Pelagic Cormorant is most sensitive to the warm waters during an El Nino event, when the abundance of prey is severely reduced. Population losses will occur during these events but their numbers do rebound when conditions return to normal. Exclusively marine, Pelagic Cormorants can be found in bays and sounds along the west coast of North America (although usually fairly close to shore). They are easily flushed and breed on small, nearshore islands and steep rocky cliffs of the mainland. Like many birds, Pelagic Cormorants are monogamous. They nest in colonies, which are smaller than those of other cormorants and are usually far from their nearest neighbor. Colonies are situated on narrow cliff ledges, steep slopes, and other relatively inaccessible locations. These difficult to reach locations exclude most predators and reduce the need to defend the nest. One exception, a colony that began in 1971, nests under buildings along Cannery Row in Monterey. In 2001, 54 nests were counted in this colony. More recently, a small colony can be found nesting on the pilings at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Upon returning to the colony or nest, they often perch with their wings spread to dry. They are less social than other species of cormorants. A group of cormorants has many different names,including a "flight", "gulp", "rookery", "sunning", and "swim" of cormorants. They feed alone, catching most of their prey underwater after diving from a sitting position in the water, submerged to their neck, in the water. This is a diagnostic position, as the Brandt's and Double-crested do not sit as low in the water. They will dive for crabs, worms, and small fishes. The water may be shallow or they are able to make deep dives, sometimes to 55 m (180 feet) or more using their webbed feet for propulsion. They can spring straight up out of the water into the air and fly.


By-catch in fishing nets


Small fishes, benthic invertebrates (e.g., shrimp, crabs)

Feeding behavior


Feeding behavior notes:

Small fishes make up most of the diet, with crustaceans and other marine animals making up a small portion as well. Much of the foraging is close to rocks and cliffs, in tidal rips and surf. Their eyes are adapted for aerial as well as underwater vision. They feed alone, catching most of their prey underwater after diving from a sitting position on the water. They can dive to depths of at least 55 m (180 feet).

March - August


The Pelagic Cormorant breeds from the arctic waters of the Chukchi and Bering Seas of Alaska, south along the North American Coast to Baja California. It also breeds along the Asian coast to southern China. Depending on their location, breeding behavior may begin as late as June or July in the north and as early as late February in the south. Pelagic Cormorants wintering in the warmer southern area of the range will begin their migration back to their northern breeding areas in March. In the MBNMS, the Pelagic Cormorant is a year-long resident and does not migrate. Nest building and breeding usually starts in March. The male displays at a nest site by flashing his white patches. He gathers nesting material, mostly grass and kelp, but also mosses, sticks, feathers and marine debris like rope, plastic and other man-made objects and presents it to his mate, who builds the nest. This nest may be reused from year to year and is added to each year reaching a height of up to six feet if weather does not weaken it. They use their own guano to cement the nesting materials together and to cement the nest to the cliff face. Ledges that they choose are usually very narrow with barely enough room to turn around. They are often protected by overhanging ledges. The female lays a clutch of 3-5 light blue/bluish white eggs that become nest-stained. During the day the breeding pairs remain in the colony while non-breeding individuals return in the evening. Groaning and hissing calls are audible around breeding colonies. The eggs are approximately 60 mm long (2.4 inches) and are laid and hatch asynchronously. One end of the egg is very tapered and this shape serves a purpose: if the egg gets nudged and begins to roll it will not roll off the ledge but will circle back to its original position due to the shape of the egg. Both parents incubate the eggs which hatch in 26-31 days. They fledge in approximately 47-49 days. A good way to locate an active nest on a cliff face is to look for the white stains of guano. At the top of the white stain you should find a ledge and on that ledge a low stick nest with chicks that defecate with their heads facing the cliff and their rumps facing outward, thus not fouling their nest. One excellent place in the spring for viewing this is Point Lobos State Reserve on the north facing cliffs of Sea Lion Point. In Monterey most chicks have fledged by June. In British Columbia and Alaska fledging may not occur until August.


Both parents feed the young, which are totally helpless upon hatching (altricial) and devoid of feathers. Upon fledging, in 47 to 49 days, the parents no longer care for their young and the nest is abandoned. They will then feed independently, following the most abundant prey.

September - February


Birds that breed from Washington southward are permanent residents, but birds breeding farther north migrate to winter in northern Washington waters. Breeding colonies disperse but the Pelagic Cormorant in the MBNMS area (and areas southward) does not migrate but continues to forage along the rocky coastal areas following the most abundant prey.

Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary:

Cormorants as a group have been killed and harassed by people who believe that the birds damage the commercial fishing industry. They have also been taken by commercial fishing as by-catch in nets at depths up to 120 feet. Oil spills, gill-net entanglement, and toxic contamination of prey also negatively impact the population.
Click on an image below to view a larger version in the SIMoN Photo Library. You will also be able to view important information on each photo such as photographer, date, caption and more.
Lentz, J. and D. DesJardin. 2005. Introduction to the birds of the southern California coast. University of California Press. 316 p.
NOAA. 1994. Beached marine birds and mammals of the North American West Coast: a revised guide to their identification. NOAA Sanctuaries and Reserves Division, U.S. Department of Commerce
US Geological Survey. 2008. Seabirds, Forage Fish, and Marine Ecosystems.
Accessed 01/30/2009 for Pelagic Cormorant

Cornell Lab of Ornithology
All About Birds

WWW Field Guides. 2007

Fraser, D.F., W.L. Harper. 1999. Rare birds of British Columbia. Wildl. Branch and Resour. Inv. Branch, B.C. Minist. Environ., Lands and Parks, Victoria, BC. 244pp.

Monterey Bay Aquarium. Online Field Guide, 2008.

Nature Works. 2009.

Seattle Audubon Society.

Turnstone Marine Survey LLC

WWW Field Guide to Birds of North America.