Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)
Dear Readers, once I returned to London after having a very subdued Christmas with my Dad, I felt a desperate need to reconnect with both my physical self and the world around me. I have found that grieving involves both a closing down and an opening up – I spend a lot of time with my memories, but I am also vulnerable to the world around me, as if all the emotional bludgeoning of the past few years had tenderised me like a steak.
For example, I was travelling on the tube the other day when a woman got on with a small, elderly dog. He was a grizzled creature, slightly wobbly on his legs, his eyes bulging in their socket, his tongue lolling out as he peered around the carriage. And then he staggered over to me and looked up with an expression of such trust and hope that I started to cry all over his innocent head. Fortunately there are many deranged people on the Northern Line, and so my outburst went unnoticed and unremarked, except by the dog, who tried to lick my tears and wagged his tail so vigorously that he fell over.
And so, the next day, I went to Hampstead Heath for a brisk walk and there, on the boating pond, I saw a cormorant and realised that I had never really seen one before.
Look at that extraordinary frosting on the bird’s head, the red chin! My camera was at the limit of its magnification, but the bird is blue-eyed. In North Norway the bird is considered to be the incarnation of souls lost at sea, whose bodies have never been recovered. Their Latin genus name, Phalacrocorax, is said to mean ‘bald raven’ and the name ‘cormorant’ may be a direct contraction of the Latin ‘corvus marinus, or ‘sea raven’. There’s something about black-plumaged birds, whether crows or cormorants, that awakens the Gothic imagination, and for many people the birds represent the spirits of the departed. Plus, as Adam Nicholson remarks in his wonderful book ‘The Seabird’s Cry‘ , the bird is invoked in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ as the very incarnation of Satan:
‘Up he flew, and on the Tree of Life
The middle tree, and highest there that grew,
Sat like a cormorant; yet not true life
Thereby regained, but sat devising Death
to them who liv’d.’
Cormorants are regarded by many anglers as direct competition, and in spite of the bird’s protected status it is often illegally killed. This is, as so often, a pointless exercise: if a prime fishing site becomes vacant, other cormorants will move in. Plus, for such a big bird the cormorant’s daily food requirements are quite modest, with each creature requiring less than a kilo of fish. The birds are exquisitely designed to hunt fish underwater, and have jaws which they can dislocate to eat much bigger fish than you’d think, but they spend much of their time perched up, drying their wings and surveying their kingdom with a haughty air. In summer, with babies to feed, the birds catch all the fish that they can but in winter they hunt more strategically, waiting for larger, more torpedo-shaped fish, so as to not waste valuable energy that could be used to keep themselves warm.
The UK has a resident cormorant population of about 9,000 pairs, who live mostly in coastal regions, and who are extremely faithful to their nest sites, building up their nests with twigs year after year. However, in the winter their numbers are swollen by a further 41,000 birds who spend the cold weather on rivers, lakes and reservoirs. There is a huge cormorant nesting site on one of the islands in Walthamstow Wetlands, however, so to see the dinosaur-like nestlings of this remarkable bird, it’s worth bringing your binoculars to north-east London.
Why, though, do the birds spend so long with their wings outspread? Other water birds who dive, such as tufted ducks and gannets, have no need to do this, and indeed some species of cormorant don’t do it either, particularly the wonderfully named Antarctic Blue-Eyed Shag (Phalacrocorax atriceps bransfielden). There has been much heated debate on the subject in the scientific community, but the conclusion as far as I could see seemed to be that the plumage of cormorants is not as water-repellent as that of some other birds and so, in suitable climates, they need to dry out their feathers before they are able to fly. For our friend the Antarctic Blue-Eyed Shag, however, hanging around revealing your wingpits would have the added effect of lowering body temperature due to exposure to the icy blasts of the Antarctic wind, and would not help significantly with the speed of drying, and so the bird sensibly keeps its wings shut. Animal behaviour is often much more nuanced and cued to context than we understand, unless we take the time to really look.
If this posture looks a little familiar, it may be because the cormorant is the model for Liverpool’s emblem, the Liver Bird.
A Liver Bird atop the Liver building in Liverpool (Photo One)
There are actually two Liver birds on the Liver building, but they face away from one another. One was designed to watch the sea (‘our prosperity’) and one to watch the city (‘our people’). The legend goes that if that two birds actually mated and flew away, it would mean the end of Liverpool, and that’s why they are chained to their perches. The birds are officially known as Bella and Bertie, and they are eighteen feet long, ten feet high and each carry a sprig of laver seaweed in their beaks (a pun on ‘Liver’).
In the interests of illuminating a trap for the unwary, I should point out that the ‘Liver’ in ‘Liver birds’ rhymes with ‘fiver’, whereas in ‘Liverpool’ it rhymes with ‘hither’. Go figure.
The Royal Liver Building (Photo Two)
And for any folks ‘of a certain age’, who could forget the weekly antics of The Liver Birds on BBC1, as they tottered around Liverpool in their Afghan coats, mini skirts and knee-length white patent boots, looking for love and trying to cope with the vagaries of work and their social lives? Like so many British comedies of the period, it was very much about class. Beryl, played by Polly James, was the ‘common’ working-class one, and Nerys Hughes played Sandra, who was the more softly-spoken, refined one.
Polly James and Nerys Hughes on the set of The Liver Birds (Photo Three)
The programme ran for 9 series, from 1969 right through to the end of the seventies, and it was a fixture in our household. We watched agog with our dinner plates on our laps (we didn’t really have room for a dining table). If we were lucky, Mum would have made ‘spammy hedgehogs’. This was a pile of mashed potato with spam ‘quills’ and tomato ketchup for eyes. Sometimes we would have eggy sunflowers, which was a fried egg surrounded by chip ‘petals’. My Mum was such a creative person that even a cheap dinner would be transformed into a masterpiece.
But I digress, as usual.
I would like to leave you with a poem by Ted Hughes. I know a lot of Hughes’s poems, and admire the way that he can conjure a creature with a few lines, but I didn’t associate him with humour. However, I find this hilarious. It speaks to me of how humans, adaptable as we are, are actually the clumsiest, most ill-adapted animals on the planet. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did…
A Cormorant by Ted Hughes
Here before me, snake-head.
My waders weigh seven pounds.
My Barbour jacket, mainly necessary
For its pockets, is proof
Against the sky at my back. My bag
Sags with lures and hunter’s medicine enough
For a year in the Pleistocene.
My hat, of use only
If this May relapses into March,
Embarrasses me, and my net, long as myself,
Optimistic, awkward, infatuated
With every twig-snag and fence-barb
Will slowly ruin the day. I paddle
Precariously on slimed shale,
And infiltrate twenty yards
Of gluey and magnetized spider-gleam
Into the elbowing dense jostle-traffic
Of the river’s tunnel, and pray
With futuristic, archaic under-breath
So that some fish, telepathically overpowered,
Will attach its incomprehension
To the bauble I offer to space in general.
The cormorant eyes me, beak uptilted,
Body-snake low — sea-serpentish.
He’s thinking: “Will that stump
Stay a stump just while I dive?” He dives.
He sheds everything from his tail end
Except fish-action, becomes fish,
Disappears from bird,
Into fish, so dissolving fish naturally
Into himself. Re-emerges, gorged,
Himself as he was, and escapes me.
Leaves me high and dry in my space-armour,
A deep-sea diver in two inches of water.
Photo One by By Chowells, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1894728
Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1240339
Photo Three By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41896196