Bird Totems of Venice: The Cormorant

By Krista Schwimmer

I first met the cormorant up close and personal on the same day the Space Shuttle Endeavor flew over Venice Beach. On September 21, 2012, my husband and I had gone out to watch its flight. While we were sitting in the sand beside the ocean, my husband noticed a large, blackish-brown bird with yellow cheeks and neck. With its wings stretched out fully, the standing bird looked like it had just stepped out of a Mother Goose Nursery Rhyme.
Of course, being the avid bird lover that I am, I immediately took out my Olympus camera to capture a few pictures. At first, I approached the bird carefully, afraid that I might startle it away. I soon found out that this lone fellow couldn’t care less about me and my camera. At one point, I even sat beside it so my husband could snap a shot.
At home, I looked the bird up. It was a double-breasted cormorant.
Cormorants are medium to large seabirds. There are 40 species of them throughout the world, six species living in North America. They are coastal, rather than oceanic birds whose ancestors reach back to the time of the dinosaurs. They are also called shags due to some of them bearing crests. Many species have patches of bright blue, orange, red, or yellow skin on their faces, sometimes just during mating season. Largely fish eaters, they are wonderful divers. Cormorants have been caught in nets up to 100 feet bellow water. (i) Sometimes, they fish with White Pelicans. After fishing, cormorants are commonly seen with wings spread out, drying them in the sun. Researchers say this is because their plumage is made for buoyance and therefore, not waterproof.
Four months later, I ran into more double-breasted cormorants. One I found washed on the beach, dead. An hour later, when walking home through the Venice canals, I spotted three more cormorants grooming themselves on a small boat christened “Danny’s Dingy.”
On this second occasion, I did find myself considering the synchronicity of seeing both the dead and the living birds. Every January, I find myself thinking of three important people in my life who died in this month. The first is my brother, David, who was lost at sea in a kayaking accident off Baja California in 1978. His body was never found. The other two are my much loved English teacher, Mrs. Muriel Allison, and my mother. Not only were these people some of the closest relationships I have ever had – but they all knew each other and loved each other as well.
Birds are commonly associated with the soul or the afterlife. A Norwegian myth says that those who die at sea can visit former homes in the form of a cormorant. Not only that – but three cormorants flying together carry messages and warnings from the dead. Could the sighting of the three cormorants on “Danny’s Dingy” represent the souls of my brother, my mother, and my English teacher?
For me that day, another odd synchronicity happened. The name, “Danny”, is the name of a fictional character in a book my brother, David, never completed. Seeing first the dead and then the living cormorants gave my soul a sense of peace around the death of my brother. Seeing the three together also gave me a great sense of support and encouragement from three people who did that for me while alive.
At that time in my life, I had once more returned to writing more, both in my journal, through the Beachhead, and through a television script I was working on with my husband. I felt the message of the cormorants was one of encouragement in this area of my life, as all three people had deeply supported my path as a writer.
In his book, “Animal Speak,” Ted Andrews states that when the cormorant “appears in our life there will come a teaching or a new opportunity that will enable us to accomplish what didn’t seem possible.” (ii) Although I cannot say that happened for me with writing at the time, it did happen for me in my practical world with matters that had been going on for years.
The cormorant is both revered and demonized. In Japan, for over fourteen hundred years, fishermen have been using cormorants to hunt aya or sweet-fish. Aya is a species of fish similar in taste to salmon and found largely in Eastern Asia. This fishing practice, called “Ukai”, is especially prominent on the Nagara River in Gifu City. From May 11th though October 15th can witness the spectacle of these traditional fishermen in long wooden boats with cormorants leashed and swimming alongside the boats. Held at night, the boats are lit by lanterns. Snares or rings around the cormorants’ necks prevent them from swallowing the large fish. So, once the bird catches a fish, the fisherman can remove it quite quickly. This occupation is inherited and passed down. It is also supported and protected by the Emperor himself. The first fish of the season is presented to the Emperor.(iii)
Although some consider the leashing of the cormorants cruel, the fishermen who inherit this occupation live and take care of their cormorants their whole lives. In some countries, no ring or leash is even used.
In other North American and European fishing communities, the cormorant is demonized for the exact same reason: its ability to dive and fish well. As a result, some fishermen see the cormorant as destroying their way of life. In his book, “The Devil’s Cormorant: A Natural History,” Richard King recounts the story of the large cormorant population on Little Galloo Island in eastern Lake Ontario. Captain Ron Ditch, founder of an organization called “Concerned Citizens for Cormorant Control,” had been advocating managing the cormorant population for many years. No one heard or responded. To send a message, he and a few others went out one night in 1998 to Little Galloo Island and slaughtered thousands of cormorants, a bird protected under the Migratory Bird Act. They were eventually caught and prosecuted for the killing of two thousand cormorants. Captain Ditch, however, tells King that it was probably more likely twenty thousand. The penalty? $100,000.(iv)
For me, the cormorant never once struck me as a representative of the darker side of life. Known at one time as the sea raven, I felt a magical presence around this bird. Perhaps, on the day of the Endeavor, this single cormorant was the spirit of not a relative of mine, but someone with a larger scope in history: “The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.”
In 1853, this native woman was found living off the southern coast of California. She wore a green Cormorant dress sewn together with whale sinew. She had survived on this island by herself for 18 years. Discovered by George Nidever, he took her to live with him and his wife in Santa Barbara. No one alive spoke her language. She lived only for 7 weeks, dying of dysentery.(v)
So, as we leave the cormorant to dive and fish in the waters around the world, perhaps we can reflect on the complex reactions humans have to this species. Is it a demon or a friend? Seems to me that’s up to each of us to decide. For me, I call the cormorant friend. And, if I could, I would have one of its kind over for tea and sweetfish any day.

i  Continuum Encyclopedia of Animal Symbolism in World Art. Hope B. Werness, 2006, pg. 104. Retrieved from
ii  Andrews, Ted. (2004 and 2009). Animal-Wise, understanding the language of animal messengers & companions. Jackson, TN: Dragonhawk Publishing.
iii  For a great description with photos of Ukai, go to
iv  King, Richard J. (2013). The Devil’s Cormorant, a natural history. Chapter 2: Henderson Harbor. University of New 
Hampshire Press.
v  Timbrook, Jan. The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. Retrieved from

Krista - Comorant1 Krista - Comorant

Above: Cormorants in Venice

Photos: Krista Schwimmer

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