Do you know this bird? A cormorant you say? Not so fast! Avoid a case of mistaken identity, and take a closer look…

Thanks to favorable year-round temperatures and plentiful resources, our area supports a wide variety of bird species. All kinds of birds – particularly those that swim, fully submerged, to feed in both salt and fresh water – are just plain fun to watch. Sometimes they appear suddenly from under the water and disappear just as fast, continuing their mad chase after the small fish they eat.

The casual observer may know these birds as cormorants, but that is only part of the answer and only some of the time. Our area is home to two types of birds that swim and hunt fully submerged this way: the double-crested cormorant and the similarly designed anhinga. But how to tell them apart? 

To know the difference, carefully observe the bird, starting with their head. The anhinga is a sleek bird, with a long, narrow beak ending in a straight point, like a sharpened pencil. Their neck is long and thin, and sometimes people call them “snake bird.” When hunting, the anhinga is stealth and speed. When deciding on a place to pursue fish, it will swim with just its neck and head above water. When it’s time to submerge, frequently the anhinga’s profile resembles a submarine periscope going down out of sight gradually without making any telltale splash which could alert his prey.

Male anhinga tend to be darker than females, appearing mostly black with silver accents on their wings, and command larger wingspans up to four feet. Females have a lighter tan body, with darker wings and back. Both genders have yellow-orange beaks and feet.

Cormorants have a little curve at the end of their beaks.

The double-crested cormorant is related to the anhinga and gets its name from the two tufts of feathers adult birds feature behind their eyes. (Perhaps these birds were the influencers for the long eyelash look?) The crest feathers appear on adult, breeding-aged birds of both genders. If the tufts are not present, it is still easy to tell the difference between cormorant and anhinga by looking at the beak. Cormorants are stockier all over, and their thick neck and head lead to a robust beak that features a curve at the tip – think “c” for cormorant – to hold fish mid swim. The anhinga may use his pointy beak as a spear, which the cormorant’s beak is clearly not designed to do.

The cormorant has dark feathers, nearly black, and its dark grey feet differentiate it from the anhinga as well. Both birds have webbed feet and walk on land with a waddling gait. They are both excellent swimmers, and cormorants have been found as deep as 150 feet!

The movements of the cormorant give him away as well, as he usually launches his underwater attack by making a rounded dive into the water beneath him, like a porpoise jumping in headfirst. However, both birds surface to swallow their catch in a hurry, before it escapes capture or gets snatched by an aggressive sea gull. 

Another similarity in these local look-alikes is the way both dry themselves after a swim.  They typically choose an elevated perch, proudly extending their wings and spreading their tail feathers for maximum sun-soaking exposure. 

Knowing the difference between these two water birds is just one more way to be more of a local!