The Sea Raven

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.

Photo One by By Chowells, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1894728

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.

Photo Two by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1240339

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.

Photo Three By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41896196

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,
Dissolving himself

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 Credits

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

12 thoughts on “The Sea Raven

  1. Sarah Ann Bronkhorst

    Great find, that Ted Hughes poem: never seen it before and yes, it’s really funny and insightful. Will be looking out for you and similar ‘deranged’ (rearranged?) folk on the tube.

    Reply
  2. ravenhare

    What a wonderful post! So good that you’re able to tell us of your encounter with the dog on the train. They’re amazing creatures. Catch us off guard at times like these.
    And the Hughes poem – thanks for this one!
    Here’s to a kinder 2019 for you, V.
    Hugs from the hills, as ever …and memories of our combined group strength at MM. xx

    Reply
  3. Fran & Bobby Freelove

    Another lovely post. You amused us with the memory of your mother being a creative cook, our mother wasn’t a good cook at all, and she’d be the first to admit it, she was the only person we knew who could make a yorkshire pudding that resembled a memory foam mattress 😄 but on the other hand our father was a good cook. You’re right about the Liver Birds, the Seventies was certainly the best decade for comedies.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      🙂 🙂 😉 re the memory foam mattress. And yes, I loved Steptoe and Son as well. Not to mention Eric and Ernie….Dad was a big fan of the Goons, and so was I, but Mum absolutely didn’t get it, and would look at us with bewilderment as we laughed until we cried….

      Reply
  4. Micky Walsh

    Lovely post about cormorants. First mention I saw of them was when I was a kid and read the Wilfred Gibson poem Flannan Isle about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthouse men. On approaching the rock the author/search party member notes “We saw three queer black ugly birds – too big by far in my belief for cormorant or shag”. A tad unfair on the handsome cormorant but adds to the spooky atmosphere! And it’s a poem that has stayed vivid in my memory down the years.
    BTW I was very moved by your posts about your mum, your love and care for her shone through.
    Warmest wishes micky.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Hi Micky, thank you! I hadn’t come across the poem you mentioned so I looked it up, and what a blood-curdler it is….that it’s based on a true story makes it even more compelling.

      Reply

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