When these dramatic birds are in their breeding plumage (spring), it is easier to tell them apart. The best single determinate is the color of their throat. Brandt's throat turns bright blue. Double-crested turns red. Pelagic Cormorant's throat does not change color, but he grows a second crest on top of his head, his eye patch turns magenta, and he gets two large white patches on his flanks. The rest of the year, Brandt's and Pelagic Cormorant look pretty much the same to anyone except another of their own kind. Double-crested Cormorant is, of course, a bit easier to identify because of his head gear.
Pelagic Cormorant feeds on fish, eels, sea snakes and small crustaceans. He dives deeper than most of our other sea birds and is propelled by his feet. He uses his wings to steer underwater. If you watch closely, he will sometimes give a half jump before submerging in order to make his entry a bit more streamlined. He favors kelp beds and rocky shore lines and you will sometimes find him fishing right along the beach in water that is extremely shallow. Obviously, he goes where the fish are and is a strong enough swimmer to deal with powerful ocean currents and extreme wave turbulence. Pelagic Cormorant usually fishes alone, so if you see a group of Cormorant in the water it will probably not be him. Brandt's Cormorant sometimes fishes alone, but often goes out in groups. None of the Cormorants have waterproof feathers so they spend a lot of time sitting on a rock after fishing to dry things out.
Brandt's Cormorant is endemic to North America. It was named by John Friedrich von Brandt, a German naturalist who was, at the time (1838), working in the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. He never saw the bird itself, but did his work from a skin that had been collected by Russian explorers in the early years of the nineteenth century. It is fascinating to think that these men might have stopped in at Fort Ross and the skin that Brandt used might actually have been one of our birds.
In Asia, Cormorant is trained to fish for humans. A metal ring is put around his neck so that he can not swallow any large fish that he catches. When he surfaces, he disgorges the fish into the owner's boat and is sent back down after another. At the end of the day he is fed his share of the catch. In the past, this was big business, but today it is mostly done for tourists.