Conservation Status: Vulnerable
Scientific Name: Phalacrocorax harrisi
The Flightless Cormorant is the peculiar case of the bird who forgot how to fly. An edemic species found only at the Galapagos Islands, this bird uniquely evolved to have stunted wings unsuitable for flight, and instead became a skillful swimmer and diver … read on to find out why.
Adult Flightless Cormorants are black on top and dark brown underneath, with striking turquoise eyes, and tiny wings. The male can be distinguished by size, being typically 35% larger than the female, while adolescents can be recognised by their darker eyes.
Where to find them:Fernandina & the north-west coast of Isabela island.
When to see them: All year round. Breeding and nesting season is from May to October when the water is colder and richer in nutrients, giving chicks a better chance of survival.
Their ancestors originally migrated to the Galapagos Islands even before Isabela and Fernandina islands existed, likely settling on older islands first, and later migrating west in search of richer food sources. Today there are aproximately 1,000 breeding pairs, all found on the western-most islands of the archipelago.
Flightless Cormorants like to nest on lava shores, close to the ocean. Their prefered diet is eel and octopus, which are hunted by diving deep to the ocean floor using their powerful hind legs, and reaching into rocky crevasses with their long necks to spear their prey. Regular dives go as deep as 10-15 metres, but they have been known to dive up to 5 or 6 times deeper in search of tasty morsels.
Flightless Cormorant couples perform an interesting courtship dance by intertwining their necks and turning in a tight circle. Eggs are incubated for 35 days until hatching, and the parents take turns to feed the chicks. Eventually though the male is left to care for the chick alone, while the female begins a new breeding cycle with another partner.
• The Flightless Cormorant is both the heaviest and rarest of all cormorant species in the world (there are 29 species in total).
• It is thought that they lost use of their wings due to the lack of land predators on Isabela & Fernandina islands – flight simply became unnecessary. Instead they became more suited to swimming for food, so favorable genes for small wings and a heavier body were passed down across generations, and eventually became the norm. Today the poor Flightless Cormorant is essentially stuck on the islands, with no ability to migrate.
• In order to regain their ability to fly, the Flightless Cormorant would need wings at least two thirds larger than the ones they currently have.
• The wings of a Flightless Cormorant are surprisingly not waterproof. As a result it is common to observe this bird spreading it’s wings in the sun to dry them out after diving
Written by John Potts
John is the original founder of Happy Gringo. He is from London UK and has over 17 years of travel and work experience in Latin America. John ́s biggest passions in life are travel and nature, he has had the pleasure to visit more than 75 different countries, and calls Quito, in Ecuador, home.