Because It’s Ugly

Jonathan Rosen

  • The Double-Crested Cormorant: Plight of a Feathered Pariah by Linda Wires
    Yale, 349 pp, £20.00, June 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 18711 3

I fell in love with double-crested cormorants twenty years ago, partly out of gratitude. I had just started watching birds, I was terrible at it, and the big black creatures – two and a half feet tall, with a wingspan of more than four feet – were easy to find, even in my field guide. Unlike the variegated wood warblers flitting from page to page deep inside the book, the cormorants lived at the front with the pelicans, and like them had rubbery skin stretching from their lower mandibles. The ancient fish-eaters didn’t have the colour and elegance of songbirds, but like silent movie stars they had faces. They also had bodies that I could see flying fast over Manhattan, their kinked wings creating an unmistakable silhouette, like the Batman signal. They rode low over the water of the Central Park Reservoir, their periscope necks and long hooked bills giving them away, until they dived. Cormorant feathers aren’t waterproof, a seeming defect that helps them descend to great depths, though when they’re done they have to hang themselves out to dry. I’d see them lounging on the rocks, spreading their sodden wings wide.

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