The red-legged cormorant is a medium-sized seabird with a mottled grey body and bright red legs, giving rise to its common name. Like all cormorants, this species has excellent swimming abilities and uses its large, duck-like feet to propel itself through the water with ease. It rests along rocky shores, where it is often observed standing with its wings outstretched to dry in the sun, a characteristic behavior of the cormorants.
Red-legged cormorants are foraging predators that spend most of their time in the water. Rather than “plunge diving” from flight like many seabirds, they “duck dive” from a sitting position on the sea surface. They hunt predominately in shallow waters where they chase fishes and invertebrates near the seafloor. Like most cormorants, these birds primarily feed alone and are only rarely seen in groups of more than a few individuals.
This species’ preference for small groups extends to its nesting habits. Like all seabirds, red-legged cormorants nest on land, but unlike many species, these birds do not form large nesting colonies. Males get to nesting areas first and actively court females as they arrive. Once a female chooses a mate, the pair reproduces via internal fertilization, and females lay fertilized eggs in nests constructed on steep cliff surfaces, away from most predators. Both parents incubate the eggs and care for the chicks. Adult red-legged cormorants have few natural predators, but kelp gulls and other seabirds attack nests and eat both eggs and chicks.
Scientists believe the red-legged cormorant to be near threatened with extinction. Though this species is not directly hunted, it is often captured in net fisheries targeting other species. Also, its primary natural predator (the kelp gull) thrives in systems degraded by human activity, applying further pressure to the already decreasing populations. New conservation and management measures may be necessary to reverse ongoing negative populations trends.
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.