People with some knowledge of birds know that cormorants are rather common. These aquatic birds are great flyers and good divers, found pretty much everywhere on Earth… There are dozens of species, found in and near fresh-water as well as open ocean and the shore. They are actually famous for their legendary fishing skills. Ancient societies from China to Peru developed fishing techniques with cormorants.
Posture is everything
One of the most common cormorant stances in nature (although not all cormorant species do it) is their emblematic dry-off pose, in which the bird stands stoically (and conspicuously) on a rock, spreading its wings for minutes at a time just after having returned from a swim. From a layman’s perspective, it would seem like the bird is actually doing this to get rid of the excess water, perhaps getting ready to fly.
But that is not the case with the Galapagos Flightless Cormorant, a Galapagos safari tour favourite that, quite contrary to other cormorants, is very rare and by far the least widespread member of its family.
As the name suggests, Flightless Cormorants don’t fly. But they also barely have wings to dry-off. And… apart from the fact that their wing feathers are visibly much smaller than those of any other Cormorant species, including species much smaller than it (Flightless Cormorants are in fact among the heaviest cormorants), they are completely disheveled and raggedy. It certainly matters little if the wings dry or not. Yet, systematically, Flightless Cormorants return from their long bouts at sea to stand on a rock… and spread their wings.
This single aspect has become one of the greatest visual examples of the evolutionary theory at play in the Galapagos Islands. This cormorant has no need to be widespread in terms of its distribution. Unlike other members of its family that find it convenient to fly to other areas, the Flightless Cormorant can’t get airborne to actually get to new food sources. At the same time, in the Galapagos Islands, there are no real predators to fly away from. Galapagos cormorants simply have figured that swimming will do… Perhaps we could even, poetically, venture that, at the core of this animal’s sensibilities, it has revealed which method of transportation it truly prefers.
Since there’s no need to fly at all, why not get rid of the wings? That is in essence what we imagine when face to face with cormorants on a Galapagos safari. We are actually in the presence of the evolutionary retraction of this creature’s wings. Now, this is really special indeed. There must be other representatives of the animal kingdom like the Flightless Cormorant, that no longer use an appendage like wings, (or pinkies) and are thus starting to “lose” them…? Yet we would argue that no species exists that is obviously letting something as crucial to a bird as wings shrivel up and fade away. Could the penguins have undergone a similar transition from flying to flightless?
Flightless Cormorants are found in many sites throughout the Galapagos. Observing them make for wonderful encounters, especially when snorkeling or diving, as they exercise their greatest attribute: fishing in the open ocean. Also, check out its spectacular turquoise eyes (if you are so lucky to spot a cormorant on your next Galapagos safari, you will surely be close enough to see their glorious color!)
Please note that the cormorant’s limited range on Isabela and Fernandina islands makes Galapagos cruise tours to the westernmost islands of the archipelago your best bet to find them – we can’t observe them on day-cruises from the Galapagos Safari Camp.
Plan your Galapagos Vacation
See our Safari Holidays for our suggested Galapagos itineraries and recommended activities.