Saturday, 12 September 2009


“The common cormorant (or shag)
Lays eggs inside a paper bag..”

A keen bird watcher might take exception to these fine, unforgettable lines from Christopher Isherwood’s poem, Common Cormorant, pointing out that Cormorant and Shag are separate species: Phalacrocorax carbo and Phalacrocorax aristotelis and what is more that they have very different nesting habits. To the Old English, however, both these shaggy birds, the one greenish black and the other blackish green, were shag and to the Normans they were both cormoran, the latter lovely word deriving from corvus marinus, the ‘sea raven’. The old Saxon speaking fishermen of the Estuary mostly called them shag. The fine distinction between the species perhaps came into being after the Conquest in much the same way as the distinction was made between sheep and mutton. It is easy to tell your cormorant from your shag but I have to admit that, although both carbo and aristotelis abound on the Estuary, I have seldom felt I needed to do so.

Here, opposite Starcross, we have the Shaggles Sand, a sandy island at low water to the northern end of which the cormorant still gather. How much nicer if the birds were generally called shaggles. It would put an end to all those tired jokes.

The birds who gather on the Shaggles Sand, like cormorant everywhere, enjoy spreading out their wings to the sun and the wind, so to dry them and in the act looking much more like heraldic eagles than any eagle I have ever met. Some say the cormorant is an ugly bird. True there is something truly primeval about him but I love to see him. He pleases the eye. The designer of today’s German eagle certainly seems to have taken a cormorant for his model. I think I know which one.

Next: Even more cormorant.

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