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White-breasted Cormorant

Phalacrocorax carbo lucidus

The White-breasted Cormorant inhabits estuaries, lagoons, shallow and sheltered coastal waters, swamps, lakes, dams and rivers. It is the only cormorant in South Africa that is equally at home in both marine and aquatic habitats. They feed primarily on fish, but will also take molluscs, amphibians, crustaceans, and the chicks of smaller birds. At a metre in length with a wingspan of around 1.5m and a weight of up to 3.2kg, it is Africa’s largest cormorant.

Breeding in White-breasted Cormorants have been recorded throughout the year, but reaches a peak at the end of the rainy season. While they are mostly solitary when foraging, they roost and nest in colonies, numbering anywhere between 10 and 1000 monogamous pairs, and often mixed with other kinds of waterbirds. Depending on where they find themselves these colonies may be located on rocky islands, cliffs, inaccessible (for land-based predators) sandbanks, shipwrecks, or in trees and reedbeds. Nests are platforms built by the female with sticks, reeds, seaweed, feathers and litter that is provided by the male. Clutches of 2-5 eggs are incubated by both parents for around 4 weeks. The chicks are fed regurgitated fish by both parents, perform their first flight when they’re about 8 weeks old and then become independent at about 4 months old.

White-breasted Cormorants occur almost throughout South Africa, even into the arid west along the Orange River and its larger tributaries. North of our borders they occur in a wide band through central and east Africa to the Red Sea and in isolated parts of Nigeria, Chad and Senegal. Most authorities consider the White-breasted Cormorant to be a subspecies of the Great Cormorant which has a much wider global distribution (every continent except South America and Antarctica), but some specialists suggest the White-breasted Cormorant should be considered a distinct species. The IUCN estimates the Great Cormorant’s population at as many as 2-million birds and lists the species as being of least concern. They are however persecuted by the aquaculture industry in many range countries and is at risk both from oil spills and of poisonous pollution-buildup in the fish stocks they subsist on.