CRANES, CORMORANTS, PEACOCKS AND OTHER BIRDS IN CHINA

BIRDS IN CHINA

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An eagle in Yangshou in Guilin
The mandarin, or Chinese wood duck, is an unremarkable-looking bird most of the year, with a grey head and dappled brown body. But during the mating season it goes through a remarkable transformation. The top of its head turns glossy green, a ruff of pointed feathers sprout from around the neck and triangular sails emerge from the wings. In the their display in front of females, males gather in groups and dip their bills in the water, arch their necks and touch the sails on their wings with their bills.

The number of sparrows in China has sharply declined as a result of pollution and hunting. Large numbers of them have been caught and fried up and served up as snacks in the streets of Beijing and other cities. Others have been poisoned by pesticides. Not very many Chinese have mourned their loss. In the late 1950s, Mao put them on the list of “four pests” along with rats, mosquitos and flies that should be exterminated.

In February 2004, around 10,000 birds suddenly dropped dead from the sky. The birds were bramblings, a member of the finch family, and it is said they dropped “like rain.” It is not clear what made them all die. Scientists have speculated they were poisoned.

Storks have been raised in artificial breeding programs in Russia and China and imported to Japan. An owl in the southern province of Jiangxi built a nest in a farmer's house so it could watch TV every night with the farmer's family.

The Chinese crested tern is one of the world’s rarest birds. It is seen in Fujian Province. An NGO called the Saunder’s Gull Protection Association, founded by Liu Detian, has proposed setting up the world’s largest breeding wetland in the 3,149-square-kilometer Panjin wetland in Liaoning Province wetland. Another gull, the Saunder’s gull is one of the rarest birds in China.

Websites and Resources

Good Websites and Sources: Rare Birds of China rarebirdsofchina.com ; Birds of China Checklist birdlist.org/china. ; China Birding Hotspots China Birding Hotspots China Bird.net China Bird.net ; Birdwatching Tour, China Tibet Travel: China Tibet Travel ;Fat Birder Fat Birder . There are lots of good sites if you google “Birdwatching in China.”

Cormorant fishing Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Cormorant fishing in Yangshuo yangshuo-travel-guide ; Photos of Cormorant fishing molon.de ; Articles on Cormorant Fishing highbeam.com ; Cranes International Crane Foundation savingcranes.org ; Black-Necked Crane savingcranes.org ; Red-Crowned Crane savingcranes.org

On Wild Animals in China: Living National Treasures: China lntreasures.com/china ; Animal Info animalinfo.org ; ARKive (do a Search for China or the Animal Species You Want) arkive.org Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive Endangered Animals in China ifce.org/endanger ; Animals Asia Campaign to Help Animals animalsasia.org ; Plants in China: Flora of China flora.huh.harvard.edu ; Plant Meaning and Symbolism Chinatown Connection

Links in this Website: ANIMALS AND PLANTS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; PREHISTORIC ANIMALS AND DINOSAURS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; PANGOLINS, DEER AND TIGERS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; Factsanddetails.com/China ; SNUB-NOSED AND GOLDEN MONKEYS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; PANDAS Factsanddetails.com/China ; ENDANGERED PANDAS Factsanddetails.com/China ; ALLIGATORS, RIVER DOLPHINS AND GIANT SALAMANDERS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CRANES, CORMORANTS AND OTHER BIRDS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN ANIMALS AND PLANTS Factsanddetails.com/China ; SNOW LEOPARDS Factsanddetails.com/China ; SHAHTOOSH AND CHIRUS Factsanddetails.com/China ; YAKS Factsanddetails.com/China ; PETS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DOGS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE DOG BREEDS Factsanddetails.com/China ; WEIRD FOODS IN CHINA NO. 1 Factsanddetails.com/China ; WEIRD FOODS IN CHINA NO. 2 Factsanddetails.com/China ; ANIMAL PARTS AND CHINESE MEDICINE Factsanddetails.com/China

Birdwatchers and Birdcatchers in China

Birdwatchers are often mistaken for surveyors. When they identify themselves they are often told there are no birds or asked how expensive the birds they are looking for. A well-known birder in Shanghai old The New Yorker, “Whatever species you can find in the forest you can go to local market and see in a cage.”

Birds are threatened by pollution, habitat loss, and widespread illegal netting and poisoning of them for food. Wild birds are commonly caught and sold as pets or for release at festivals by Buddhists, who believe that releasing caged birds brings good karma.

In a typical Chinese bird market you can recently caught thrushes, skylarks and grosbeaks, looking ragged in their cruelly-small cages. Sometimes sparrows are kept on leashes by children who tame the birds by quietly stroking their heads. Budgies and minias are often raised in captivity. Exotic birds like fallvettas, leaf birds and yhina and caught in the south and transported to the north,

Among the birds favored for their songs are tiny Japanese white-eyes and hwamei. Newly caught birds sell for as little a $1.50 but ones who have been trained for a year fetch as much as $300. The white-eyes tend to be kept in nice, elegant cages while the hwamei are kept in more spartan solid-sided cages.

Bird Netting in China

Every fall, almost the entire migratory bird population of northeast China funnels through the Liaodong Peninsula on their way south. Local poachers put up thousands of nets, many of them on public land, including Laotoe Mountain Nature Reserve, to capture and kill them. Some are eaten locally but most are sent to southern China, where they are regarded as delicacies.

Among the most value birds are white-tailed eagles, valued because eating them is thought to improve eyesight, and Saker falcons, prized by falconers. Some birds survive the netting unscathed but others are killed or suffer compound fractures that send their bones piercing out of their wings at sickening angles. Poachers often stuff a day’s catch---including live birds and dead one---into laundry sacks. Hawks and eagles are decapitated to keep them from biting. Some times the most visible evidence that poachers have struck a certain area is small pile of bloody heads left on the ground.

The nets are sometimes hung between the tops of two trees. Small birds in cages are sometimes used as bait to attract larger birds. Some eagle traps are hung from high branches and weighted with logs. Reserve wardens try to catch the poachers, who respond by chopping down trees to block the warden’s trucks. The wardens also try to educate the public that in the long run birds are worth more alive than dead and also try to generate interest in developing eco-tourism.

Decline of Swifts in Beijing

“Not so long ago summer in Beijing simply wasn't summer without the constant screaming of swifts over the gates and hutongs, but in recent years the skies have fallen silent due to the wholesale destruction of traditional buildings and ever growing pollution, according to recent newspaper reports.” [Source: Danwei.org, August 24, 2009]

“Swifts - (“rain swallows”) or (“pagoda swallows”) in Chinese - have been synonymous with Beijing since 1417 - indeed an alternative name for the city is Yan Jing or “swift capital.”...The old-style courtyard buildings, temples and city gates were ideal nesting places for these acrobatic harbingers of summer, and the concrete and steel monstrosities that have replaced them have proved disastrous for the birds which come to breed in Beijing after spending the winter as far away as southern Africa.” [Ibid]

“Professor Zheng Guangmei of Beijing Normal University, chairman of the China Ornithological Society, recalls cycling past the moat around the Forbidden City in June 1965 and seeing almost 400 of the dark, swallow-like birds. But when another expert, Gao Wu, a retired zoology professor from Capital Normal University, counted swifts at the same spot in July 2000 he noted only 80.” [Ibid]

“The swift's demise seems to date back as far back as the early 1950s when the city gates started to be demolished, the first to go being Chang'an Left and Right Gates in 1952, and by the time Dongzhimen was razed in 1969 it seems to have been too late. “At the same time temples and pagodas were also demolished for various reasons,” says Gao. “Suitable habitats for swifts gradually disappeared, which is the main reason why their numbers have fallen.” [Ibid]

“But worse was to come, and the birds' fate was sealed in the 1980s when some of the relatively few old buildings that had survived the destruction of the Mao era were renovated and netting was placed around the eves to protect them from birds. Not only this, but vast forests of concrete and glass high-rises were built that were even more hostile territory and have resulted in further declines in swift numbers.” [Ibid]

“The Bird's Nest stadium and five statues inspired by swifts were symbols of the Beijing Olympics that should have been good news for birds, but in fact the Bird's Nest was particularly hostile territory for swifts as it was surrounded by concrete-covered squares that were totally unsuitable habitat...A few flyovers, including those at Temple of Heavenly Peace and Jianguomen, have managed to attract nesting swifts, but by and large the outlook seems bleak.” [Ibid]

“Gao says attempts to “green” Beijing through the unimaginative planting of vast numbers of alien evergreens and the excessive manicuring of parks and other green spaces have been a disaster for swifts and other indigenous species. What’s more, many officials in charge of preserving ancient buildings are totally unsympathetic to the needs of birds. When Gao raised the matter of how netting around the eves prevents swifts from nesting, one of them sneered, “They're pests, why should they be protected?” [Ibid]

Cranes

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black necked crane
Cranes are the tallest and arguably the most elegant of all flying birds. More closely related to rails and bustards than herons, ibises and storks, they are known best for their unwavering faithfulness to mates, spectacular courtship displays, large size, long migrations and loud calls. Many species can reach a height of five feet within a year after they are born. Some of them have long life spans. One Siberian crane is known to have lived for 83 years.

Cranes are admired for their grace and beauty. Cranes, especially rare red-crowned cranes, have traditionally been symbols of longevity, peace, friendship, love, happiness, martial fidelity and good luck in China, Korea and Japan. They are common motifs on imperial clothing, paintings, scrolls, screens, porcelain, lacquerware, bronze mirrors and a popular brand of playing cards. Paper cranes are folded as a sign of peace. Cranes also appear in Russian folk song, ancient Egyptian tombs, Greek myths, Australian aboriginal dances, and prehistoric European cave art.

There are 15 species of crane. They generally make their homes in grasslands and wetlands. Nine species of crane are endangered. Some are near extinction. Their numbers have been reduced by hunting and habitat loss. Captive breeding programs have been set up in several countries to increase their numbers. At some of these places, cranes are raised by humans in crane costumes and taught to fly over grass runways with the help of ultralight planes flown by men in crane costumes.

Crane pairs establish large breeding territories in wetlands and grasslands and zealously defend them. Intruders are warned off with a loud trumpeting. A pair builds a platform nest in shallow water. Typically two eggs are laid, with both sexes sharing incubation duties. After they hatch chicks remain with their parents until the next breeding season. In many cases only one chick survives. The low reproductive makes rebuilding decimated crane population a difficult task.

Migrating Cranes

Cranes in northern areas migrate thousands of kilometers between breeding and wintering areas. Unlike many other birds cranes are not born with the instinct to fly their migrations paths. Young are taught the route when they accompany their parents on the migration.

The distance covered by migrating cranes is between a 1,000 miles and 3,000 miles. The fly over deserts, tundra and mountain ranges and rely on wetlands along the way to rest and replenish themselves. Cranes can sustain speeds of 30 mph by flying with flapping wings. They prefer to save energy by rising in thermals and being carried by winds.

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Black- Necked Cranes

Some cranes know it is time to breed based on seasonal markers such as day length and rainfall amounts. Some fly at very altitudes. Demoiselle cranes can reach heights of 24,000 feet when they cross the Hindu Kush during their fall and spring migrations between nesting grounds in Central Asia and warmer, wintering areas in India.

Red-Crowned Cranes

The red-crowned crane is the official bird of China. Among the largest cranes, it stands nearly five tall, weighs 22 pounds and lives more than 60 years. Males and females are virtually identical. Booth have distinctive red crowns and white and black markings on their wings and bodies. They are also known as the Japanese crane and Manchurian crane.

The red-crowned crane inhabits parts of China, Siberia, Korea and eastern Hokkaido in Japan. It eats frogs, fish and insects; can issue a territorial call that can be heard for two miles; and can fly at speeds of 40mph. In sub-zero temperatures it stays warm by standing on one leg and protecting its body underneath one wing. Sometimes red-crowned cranes play act by themselves with corn husks.

The red-crowned crane nearly became extinct, a victim of the hunting and habitat loss, and deterioration of its breeding environment. Their numbers dwindled to only 33 in 1952 in Japan. Particularly devastating has been the loss of wetlands.

The red-crowned crane has rebounded thanks to efforts of conservationists. As of 1982, about 1,000 cranes remained. There are currently about 1,000 Japanese crane in Japan. Most of them in Kushiro wetlands area in eastern Hokkaido. Another 1,000 or so live in Korea and southern China and migrate to northern China and Siberia. Those on Hokkaido stay on the island.

Red-Crowned Crane Mating Behavior

Red-crowned cranes mate for life. In the mating season, males do a ritual dance in which they leap up and down with their wings outstretched. Females sometimes start dancing. Sometimes entire flocks dance for what appears to be the sheer fun of it. The leaping dance of red-crowned cranes can be both a courtship dance or a sign of aggression.

The actual mating of the red-crowned crane is brief. The male leans on the female's back and steadies himself by flapping his wings while the female keep from falling down by placing her beak in the snow. After mating is completed the male and female bow to each other. Mating takes place two or three times a day and continues well into the nesting season.

Nests are built on the ground and tended by both parents during the four-to-five-week incubation period. Females usually lay two eggs but only one chick generally survives. Parents take turns carrying for the young which are vulnerable to attacks from foxes, cows, large raptors and dogs. The chick learns to fly after about three months but remain with its parents for almost a year, at which time they have to fend for themselves.

White-Naped Cranes

The white-naped crane is named after the white stripe that runs along the bird's neck. Standing up to 1.5 meters and weighing between 4.75 and 6.50 kilograms, these large birds inhabit wetlands and adjacent grasslands in China, eastern Siberia (near Vladivostock), southern Japan and the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

Predominately grey, with a red spot around their eyes, white-naped cranes are monogamous. The incubate two eggs which hatch in about 30 days. Only about 4,900 to 5,300 of the birds remain. Their existence has been threatened by loss of habitat and disruption of migration patterns.

Black-Necked Cranes

The black-necked crane is named after the black coloring on the bird's neck and head. Standing 90 to 130 centimeters tall, with a wingspan of 180 to 200 centimeters and weighing between 6 to 9 kilograms, these large birds have a bright red crown and feed primarily on barley. Tibetans regarded them as holy birds.

The black-necked crane inhabits high altitude wetlands on the Quighia-Tibetan Plateau during the April-to-October breeding season and winters in low elevation agricultural valleys in China, Bhutan, India and Myanmar, particularly on the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau. For many of these birds their entire migration route is within China.

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Black- Necked Crane Breeding dance

Black-Necked Crane Breeding

Black-necked cranes are monogamous. Females lay one or two eggs in a nest set on a small grassy island, surrounded by water for protection. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch after about 30 days, and share in the child rearing duties. A family stays together during the migration until the next breeding season when juveniles join non-breeding flocks and form pair-bonds of their own.

Describing the black-necked crane mating dance, Zhang Zhiyen wrote in the Japan Times, “One bird spread its wings, jumped and down, picked up a stick in its bill and threw it into the air. Then it flapped its wings and ran in a large circle, leaping and dancing as if full of joy. At the same time its partner bowed and stretched out its neck, beat its wings and rose and fell, cutting an elegant figure.”

“The male’s cry sounded like “Ga-ga ga,” while the female’s shrill cry went “gage-gage-gagage.” They sang on together, their bills pointing up to the sky, and were still easily audible 1.5 km away...A pair of them walked quite near...They bobbed their heads up and down as they walked, crying loudly. The male stepped behind the female, and his cry became more loud and sonorous. Leaping onto the female’s back, he mated with her for 5-6 seconds; then both danced and sang for about two minutes.”

Endangered Black-Necked Crane

China claims to be home to 75 per cent of the remaining 4,200 or so left in the world. Most are found on the Tibetan plateau. The birds have made a strong comeback since the early 1980s when only about 200 remained. Their comeback has been credited to captive breeding programs and the creation of nature reserves in the areas they inhabit.

Captured cranes have been raised in nature centers. A female crane usually lay a single egg unless it is damaged or broken and then she lays another one. Biologists have stolen the eggs after they have been laid, which in turn has made females lay more eggs, as many as 15. The eggs are hatched in incubators after about 30 days. The hatchlings are raised in the center and then released in the wild.

Cao Hai is reserve in western Guizhou near Yunnan. It is the site of mountains and a grassy lake used by water birds, including the black-neck cranes. Environmentalist want the lake to remain protected. Poor farmers want the lake to be drained and the fertile soil to be used for raising crops.

Crested Ibis

20080318-crested ibis birdquest Mark beaman.jpg The rare crested ibis was thought to be extinct in the 1970s. In 1981, seven of the birds were found living in the mountains of Yang Prefecture in Shaanxi province. In 1990, the Shaanxi Crested Ibis Rescuing and Breeding Center was set up. Through protection and artificial insemination, scientists have been able to raise the number of crested ibises to 300 through captive breeding and have released some into the wild.

The crested ibis is a beautiful bird with white feathers, a red face and a black downward curving bill. Indigenous to Japan, Korea, eastern China and eastern Russia, it is a wading bird that makes its home in rice paddies and marshes.

The crested ibis is stockier and have shorter legs that the egrets and herons. In the autumn and winter their plumage turns a pinkish-peach "ibis color." They feed on a large variety of mud-dwelling creatures, particularly loaches.

Peacock

Peafowl are ground-dwelling forest birds that are native to Asia. They are members of the pheasant family and related to chickens and jungle fowl. There are three species. The blue peafowl have been adapted to humans and share parks with them in India and Europe. The green peafowl is regarded as endangered in its native Southeast Asia, mainly through destruction of its forest habitat. The Congo peafowl was only discovered in 1936 in the rain forests of the eastern Congo.

The blue peafowl (peacocks) are native to Southeast Asia, India, China and Sri Lanka, where they are still common in the wild. In China they are found mosty in Yunnan Province. The bluw peafowl are also known as the common peafowl and the Indian peafowl. Males are called peacocks. Females are called peahens. A group of peacocks is called an "ostentation" or a "flock." In the wild this usually consist of one cock and three of hour hens.

The peacock has been domesticated for at least 4,000 years in Asia and is found now in almost every country in the world. Its spectacular tail feather display has been an inspiration for rulers and elite. The seat of power of the Mogul empire and the later the Shah of Iran was the "Peacock Throne," a magnificent throne with an image of a peacock with an expanded tail wrought in gold and precious stones in the background.

The Greeks knew of peacocks and called them Juno's bird. The Romans associated the eyespots on the peacocks’s tail with the hundred-eyed giant Argus. For early Christians they were a symbol of immortality. The Chinese gave peacock feathers to distinguished mandarins; medieval European aristocrats served peacocks at banquets as a special delicacy. "Proud as a peacock" is an old saying.

Peacock Characteristics

Peafowl live to a maximum age of 30 years. Adult males weigh between nine and 13 pounds and are six to eight feet in length, including their tail. Females weigh between six and nine pounds and are two to three feet in length. They lack the large tail feathers that males have.

Like chickens peafowl can only fly for short distances. Flying is regarded mainly as a means of escaping predators not traveling long distances. Not bogged down by a large train females can fly better than males. When covering long distances they move in a series of short flights of several meters rather than one long flight. To get from place to place they walk, jump and run. They have spurs on their feet which they can use to fight off attacks much as fighting cocks do.

Peacock Feathers

The males are the ones with the elaborate tail plumage, which is called a train. These feathers are believed to play a role in attracting females and intimidating rivals. Males and females are similar in appearance until they are two years old. After that the male begins to develop their brilliant tail plumage. The feathers grow on back of the male just above the tail, not on the tail itself.

A peacock’s train is made up of around 150 feathers that can rise up to five feet from the body. The peacock plumage comes in metallic shades of bronze, blue, green and gold. Most of the time these are folded up in train behind the tail. When the male is aroused the feathers and the quills of the tail stand erect and spread like a fan. The tail feathers are short, stiff quills that hold the fan in place. The 150 “feathers” in the fan are protective extensions, or vervets, that cover the quills. The wing feathers beat rapidly behind a spread fan.

Male peacock tails are twice as long as their body length and are clearly a burden to carry around. The tail makes it harder to escape predators and gives the predators a large target to aim for. The feathers also require a lot of maintenance. Peacocks spend a great deal of time preening.

The plumes of the peacock look multicolored but are actually brown. The plums are made of kertain, the same material found in human fingernails. The color is created by microscopic melanin reflective rods in the tiny barbules that line each of the feather’s barbs. Slight differences in the spacing and layering of the melanin rods in the keratin causes different colors to be reflected. Melanin is the substance that causes darkness in human skin. The process is somewhat similar to the way water droplets create rainbows. Sir Isaac Newton had suggested this possibility 300 years ago.

Peacock Behavior

Peacocks are social birds who prefer to sleep and move around in a group. If any members of the group senses a theat it lets out an alarm call that alerts the others. Male peacocks make a strange whooping noise that has been described as resembling a half-human, half baboon. .

Peacocks generally stay in one area as long as they have a reliable source of food and a tree to roost in. At zoos and parks they are generally allowed to run free because it is known they will not wander far. Peafowl sleep on the tops of trees, rear to rear, for protection from predators. They are hunted by leopards, tigers, jackals, dholes. martens, civets and hawk eagles. They prefer brush land with scattered bushes and trees.

Males use their spectactularly colored plumage in elaborate courtship displays. The most desirable ones in the eyes of the females can preside over harems of three to five peahens. Male peacocks raise and fan out their tail feathers during courtship displays. They may beat their small wings behind the fan and strut around, this way and that and let out loud scream. It is not entirely clear what attracts the females the most: size, sheen, or color. Females seem to prefer males with elaborate, heavily spotted trains and loud calls. Young males with less developed trains and softer calls generally don’t attract a mate.

Peafowls make their nest in the ground on low branches or in a hole behind a cover of grass, bamboo, or shrubbery. The peahen usually lays three to eight eggs. Sometimes the eggs of several peahens are mixed and different mothers take turns incubating them.

Cormorants

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Cormorants are waterbirds, whose name means "crows of the sea." A member of the pelican family, they can fly at speeds of 50mph and are particularly adept at swimming underwater, which is why they are such skilled fish catchers. They feed mostly on fish but also feed on crustaceans, frogs, tadpoles and insect larvae. [Source: Natural History, October 1998]

There are 28 different cormorant species. They live mainly in tropical and temperate areas but have been found in polar waters. Some are solely saltwater birds. Some are solely freshwater birds. Some are both. Some nest in trees. Others nest on rock islands or cliff edges. In the wild they form some of the densest colonies of birds known. Their guano is collected and used as fertilizer.

Kevin Short wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Cormorants ride much lower in the water than do the ducks. Their bodies are half-submerged, with only their necks and heads sticking prominently out of the water. Every so often one of them disappears beneath the surface, only to pop up again a half minute or so later. [Source: Kevin Short, Daily Yomiuri, December 2011]

Cormorants are highly specialized to a feeding style that ornithologists call underwater pursuit. When they disappear beneath the surface, they actively chase after fish. The cormorant bio-design is created specifically for this lifestyle. The dense, heavy-set body minimizes buoyancy, making it easy to dive and swim underwater. Short but powerful legs, situated very near to the tail, are perfect for generating a strong forward thrust. Wide webbed feet also enhance the swim kick, and the long neck and long, hooked bill enable the birds to reach out and snare a fleeing fish.

As is always the case in the natural world, the cormorants' specialized underwater adaptations come with some severe trade-offs in other areas. Their legs, for example, are situated so far to the rear that they have great trouble walking around on land. Cormorants thus tend to spend most of their out-of-water time perched on rocks, pilings or tree branches. Also, their heavy bodies make liftoff difficult, and the big birds must taxi across the surface of the lake like a jumbo jet, building up speed before taking off.

When they are not in the water cormorants often rest on tree branches or other objects, sometimes resting with their wings spread full out. In order to further decrease buoyancy and facilitate underwater swimming, cormorant feathers are designed to absorb water. Every so often, however, the feathers become too heavy and waterlogged, and the birds must come out and dry them in the sun and air.

Cormorants form same sex partnerships when they can not find opposite sex partners.

Cormorant Swimming and Fish Catching Ability

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Unlike most water birds, which have water resistant feathers, cormorants have feathers that are designed to get throughly wet. Their feathers don't trap air like water resistant varieties. This make it easier for them to dive and stay submerged while they chase fish. But this also means that their feathers become waterlogged. After spending time in the water cormorants spend considerable time on shore drying out. When they are out of the water they stretch out their wings to dry their feathers and look a little like wet dogs.

Cormorants can dive as deep as 80 feet and stay underwater for more than a minute. They have oil interwoven in their feathers that make them less buoyant than other birds and they swallow stones, which are lodged in their gut and act like a scuba diver's weight belt.

Cormorant pursue fish underwater with their eyes open, their wings pressed against their bodies, kicking furiously with their legs and feet at the back end of their bodies. Richard Conniff wrote in Smithsonian magazine: "It swims underwater with its wings folded along its slender body, its long sinuous neck curving inquisitively from side to side, and its large eyes alert behind clear inner lids...Simultaneous thrusts of its webbed feet provide enough propulsion for a cormorant to tailgate a fish and catch it crosswise on its hooked bill...The cormorant generally brings a fish to surface after 10 to 20 seconds and flips it in the air to position it correctly and smooth down its spines.”

Cormorants swallow fish whole and head first. They usually take a little time to shift the fish around to get it to go down their throat the right way. Bones and other indigestible parts are regurgitated in a nasty goo. In the Brazilian Amazon, cormorants have been observed working as a team, splashing the water with their wings and driving fish into shallow water near the shore where they are easily collected.

Cormorant Fishing

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Cormorant fishing in the Guilin area
Described by Marco Polo and popularized in the children's story Ping, cormorant fishing is still practiced today in some parts of southern China and Japan, where it first evolved. The best time to view cormorant fishing is on a moonless night when the fish are attracted to lights or fires on the boats.

The cormorants go through a routine of diving, catching fish, surfacing and having the fish taken out of their mouth by the fishermen. A piece of string or twine, a metal ring, a grass string, or a hemp or leather collar is placed around their necks to prevent them from swallowing their fish. The birds often have their wings clipped so they don’t fly away and have looped strings attached to their legs that allow them to be retrieved with a pole by the fisherman.

Cormorant fishing boats can carry anywhere from one to 30 birds. On a good day a team of four cormorants can catch about 40 pounds of fish, which are often sold by the fisherman’s wife at the local market. The birds are usually given some fish from the day's catch after the day of fishing is over.

Cormorant fishing done on Erhai Lake near Dali, Yunnan and near Guilin.

Cormorant Fishermen

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Cormorant fishing at night
Cormorant fisherman fish off row boats, motorized boats and bamboo rafts. They can fish day or night but usually don't fish on rainy days because the rain muddies the water and makes it difficult for the cormorants to see. On rainy days and extremely windy days, fishermen repair their boats and nets.

In a study of cormorant fishing, researchers found that cormorant fishermen were the least prosperous of three groups of fishermen. The wealthier group were families who owned large boats and owned large nets. Below them were fishermen who used poles with hundreds of hooks.

Some cormorant owners signal their birds with whistles, claps and shouts. Others affectionately stroke and nuzzle their birds as if they were dogs. Some feed the birds after every seven fish they catch (one researcher observed birds stopping after the seventh fish, which she concluded meant they count to seven). Other cormorant owners keep the rings on their birds all the time and feed them pieces of fish.

Fishing Cormorants

Chinese fisherman use great cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo) bred and raised in captivity. Japanese fisherman prefer Temmenick's cormorants (Phalacrocorax capillatus), which are caught in the wild on the southern shore of Honshu using decoys and sticks that bind instantly to the birds’ legs.

Fishing cormorants usually catch small fish but they can gang up and catch larger fish. Groups of 20 or 30 birds have been observed catching carp that weigh more than 59 pounds. Some birds are taught to catch specific prey such as yellow eel, Japanese eel and even turtles.

Cormorants can live to the age of 25. Some birds get injured and catch infections or die of hypothermia. The disease that Chinese fishermen fear the most is referred to as the plague. The birds usually lose their appetite, get very sick and there is nothing anyone can do. Some fishermen pray at temples; other seek the help of shaman. In so me places dying birds are euthenized with 60-proof alcohol and buried in a wooden box.

Raising and Training Fishing Cormorants

Trained cormorants go for between $150 and $300 a piece. Untrained ones cost about $30 when they are six months old. For these fishermen carefully inspect the bird feet, beak and body to determine their swimming and fishing ability.

In the Guilin area fisherman use great cormorants caught in Shandong, a coastal province near Beijing. Captives females produce about eight to ten eggs incubated by brood hens. After the cormorants hatch they are feed eel blood and bean curd and pampered and kept warm.

Fishing cormorants reach maturity at age two. They are taught how to fish using a reward and punishment system in which food is given or withheld. They usually begin fishing when they are one year old.

Descriptions of Cormorant Fishing

The earliest known reference to cormorant fishing comes from a Sui Dynasty (A.D. 581-618) chronicle. It read: "In Japan they suspend small rings from the necks of cormorants, and have them dive into the water to catch fish. In one day they can catch over a hundred." The first referenced in China was written by historian Tao Go (A.D. 902-970).

20080318-commorant fishingWWF.jpg

In 1321, Friar Oderic, a Franciscan monk who walked to China from Italy wearing a hair shirt and no shoes, gave the first detailed account by a Westerner of cormorant fishing: "He led me to a bridge, carrying in his arms with him certain dive-droppers or water-fowls [cormorants], bound to perches and about every one of their necks he tied a thread, lest they should eat the fish as fast as they took them,” Oderic wrote. "He loosened the dive-droppers from the pole, which presently went into the water, and within less than the space of one hour, caught as many fish as filled three baskets; which being full, my host untied the threads from about their necks, and entering the second time into the river they fed themselves with fish, and being satisfied, they returned and allowed themselves to be bound to their perches, as they were before."

Describing cormorant fishing by a man named Hunag in the Guilin area, an AP reporter wrote in 2001: at the front of a bamboo raft, "his four cackling cormorants huddle together, preening feathers with long beaks or stretching wings. When he finds a promising spot Hun sets a net around the raft, about 30 feet out to hem fish in...Hung jumps up and down a few times on the raft to break the bird's reverie. They snap to attention and jump into the water."

"Huang barks a command and the birds dive like arrows; they paddle furiously underwater chasing fish. Occasionally, fish jump up from the water, sometimes right over the raft, in their effort to escape....A minute or two elapses before cormorants's pointy heads and sleek necks bob up above the water. Some clutch fish. Some catch nothing. Hung plucks them from the water and onto his raft with his boat pole."

Image Sources: 1) Beifan.com http://www.beifan.com/; 2, 3) Travelpod; 4) China Tibet Information; 5) Birdquest, Mark Beamon; 6) Jane Yeo Tours ; 7, 8) The Wanderer Years ; 9) WWF; 10) Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2012


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