Pelagic Cormorant Uyalek

by Frank Keim

While living in Hooper Bay in the early 1980’s, I saw this big black seawater bird over by Cape Romanzof in the Askinuk Mountains. I say “big” because it is bigger than many of the other sea birds in the area. But it is, in fact, on average, the smallest of the three cormorants found along the coast of the Bering Sea.

If you watch it fly, it might remind you a little of a broomstick. During breeding season, both adults are black with purplish-green neck and breast and have a patch of red skin around the bill. Their showy neck pattern earns them their Yup’ik name, Uyalek, meaning “necklace-like.”

They nest on coastal cliffs and, contrary to what their name implies (“pelagic” means “open sea”), they actually hunt for their food in rocky water fairly close to shore. They are usually seen alone or in pairs.

When, sometime in May, the male’s hormones tell him it’s time to think seriously about nesting, he heads for the steep rocky cliffs where he was born somewhere along the Bering Sea coast. He is the first to arrive and immediately selects a nest site on a high ledge that he defends while wooing a mate. There, while pointing his beak up in the air and with his tail down, he performs wing-waving displays, showing off his white wing patches to returning females.

When a female lands beside him to check him out, he exposes his vivid red mouth skin and bobs his head feverishly. If she decides he’s the right guy, she hangs out at the edge of the ledge while he gathers nest materials, including grass, seaweed, moss, feathers and other debris. With this, and dry vegetation as a liner, they both form a compact shallow bowl, which they cement to the nest ledge with their own guano. He continues his wing-waving during nest building.

While building their nest both birds call and display to maintain the pair bond. The female bows, and both sexes open their bills to display their gapes, and both kink their necks, sometimes entwining them together. Sometimes their nests are quite large, especially when they build a new one over an old one. They are generally colonial nesters, meaning they nest fairly closely to one another, but this is not always the case.

Now something happens that is rare in the bird world. They perform reverse copulation, in which the female mounts the male, once for each of up to eight eggs laid. The eggs are bluish-white and are incubated for about a month by both parents.

When relieving the other of incubation duties, just before departing the nest ledge, the one leaving arches its neck, points its bill down and hops like a rabbit a few times, then opens its bill and leaps off. Males defend the nest, threatening other males that venture too close by waving their wings and head, thrusting their heads forward, and growling at them.

The young are naked and helpless (altricial) after hatching, and both parents help feed them for between 45-55 days until they are old enough to take their final leap into the wind and fly. Even so, their parents must tend and feed them for a few weeks afterward, showing them how to hunt and feeding them the wide variety of food items they catch.

These include mostly fish, which they capture at depths as great as 138 feet! Some of the fish include sculpin, herrings, greenlings, sand lance, gobies, rock fish, smelt, flounders and codfish. Many crabs, shrimps, marine worms, amphipods and algae are a part of their menu. They seize their prey with their hooked bill and may be hunting underwater for over two minutes, using their large feet for propulsion. They may pry many of their food items from rocks, and when hunting schooling fish, they often attack them from below, swallowing smaller prey while underwater but bringing larger items to the surface to soften before swallowing or feeding to their young.

Uyalet join flocks of other seabirds where prey is abundant, sometimes foraging in the middle of the flocks, but they are generally less sociable while hunting than other cormorant species.

After the young are completely on their own, the pair separates for 7-8 months, but often return to their original nest site before the breeding season begins again to ensure they are able to reclaim it.

The bird’s English name, cormorant, is a contraction of the Latin words corvus and marinus, which together mean “sea raven.” Another common name for the bird is Pelagic shag. Its scientific name, Phalacrocorax pelagicus, are Greek words, phalakros meaning “bald,” korax meaning “raven,” and pelagikos, “of the open sea,” hence “sea raven.” Its Spanish name is Cormoran pelágico, and its French name is Cormoran pélagique.

Fishermen often persecute these cormorants under the assumption they eat commercially valuable fish. They mostly do not.