Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 9, 2008

The Speckled Cormorant of Gratitude

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 8:07 pm

When David Howell, chairman of the Friends of the Detroit River, showed me this picture (see above) I was intrigued. He encountered the bird last month while kayaking just off the shore of Humbug Island. Not quite sure what to make of it, he squeezed off a few snap shots and continued on his route. Mr. Howell suspected it was a Cormorant, but was thrown by the odd coloration (see another view here).

I was able to confirm his suspicions and explain that his photo depicts a piebald, or partial albino, Double Crested Cormorant. This goose-sized species is normally glossy black with red facial features. I saw more than my share of cormorants out east and can share a number of pictures of normally colored birds for comparison (see here and here). Individuals like the Humbug bird are endowed with a rare genetic mutation that partially turns off their melanin (the dark pigments in the skin) production and leaves them with sporadic patches of pure white. Pure albinos are pure white and lack all melanin. Albinos are much rarer than these partially white creatures, but piebalds are rare enough to deserve a prolonged look.

You might recall my earlier escapade when I presented you with a blurry shot of a piebald cowbird, so the term “piebald” shouldn’t be foreign to you. Forgive me if I repeat myself when I mention that the term means “a random spotting of white” in old English. The “bald” part refers to the color white – as in the Bald Eagle which, as you know, has a fully feathered white head without male pattern baldness.

This Double-crested Cormorant appears to be doing his best to look like a bald eagle. He really does look like the living incarnation of Ben Franklin’s ideal national symbol. Ben originally wanted the Turkey as our federal bird but gave way to better minds when the bald eagle was chosen. In this bird we have a hybrid of sorts -a white-headed turkey-like bird that would have made a great compromise between the two choices. Ya think?

While putting a “bald” head on a scrawny necked bird doesn’t exactly make it noble, there is something very noble about the way this species holds its wings. Cormorants, as deep diving fish eaters, have forsaken feather oil in order to lessen their resistance when plowing through the water. They must dry their wings after an extended period in the water and do so by holding out their wings like laundry in the sun.

I can’t leave the subject of piebaldness with the cormorant, however. You see, I saw yet another piebald bird at a bird feeder outside of Barnstable, Massachusetts just last week. This time the white-splashed creature was a Black-capped Chickadee (see here). In the true tradition of fuzzy piebald photography, I present this shot to you. In this case, the back of the bird was washed with white – as if it had been splashed with bleach. A normal bird would have a slatey blue-gray back. Being a chickadee, of course, the bird was flighty at best and frustratingly fast at worst so it gave me little opportunity to “capture” it digitally.

Given the fact that I’ve actually seen two piebald birds in 2008 and was shown a picture of a third, I’m think’n this has been a charmed year. Maybe having the “piebald chickadee of happiness” pay you a visit or viewing an image of the “speckled cormorant of gratitude” will result in something wonderful. Come to think of it, I did find a quarter in the sand soon after seeing the chickadee.

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