I was sitting on a remote outcropping of rock starring at the sea. Alone. Tranquil. At peace. Suddenly a black and white bird’s head popped out of the water, followed by a fusiform black bird body. The bird floated for a few moments gazing up at me and then dived back beneath the water.
This was a shag, also known as a cormorant, a shoreline bird found throughout the world including here in New Zealand. Depending on which source you read, 36 to 40 species of shags inhabit the world with 12 to 14 species found in New Zealand of which 8 to 10 species are endemic.
Here in New Zealand, these medium to large seabirds (60-80 cm in size) mostly inhabit marine areas including estuaries although a few species frequent freshwater environments. Shags have long, thin hooked bills, elongated, goose-type necks and webbed feet like ducks. They generally have to keep flapping their wings when they fly—they don’t glide in the air like so many other shoreline birds— and they are awkward walking on land almost like penguins. Where they excel is in the water.
Shags feed by diving under the surface of the water (called pursuit diving) to catch fish, eels and crustaceans. This is part of what I was seeing when the shag popped its head out of the water at the beginning of this story. The average amount of time underwater is about thirty seconds although some sources claim times underwater of several minutes. They swallow their prey head-first and have been known to tackle prey larger than they can handle (their eyes are bigger than their mouths). They commonly nest in trees or build nests out of sticks on cliff edges.
As an interesting piece of bird lore, shags’ feathers are felt to be less waterproof than other water birds, and they often perch on rocks or trees spreading their wings to dry them.
The four more common species here in New Zealand are the black shag (also commonly known as the black cormorant), the pied shag, the little black shag and the little shag. How do you tell them apart? Black shags, also found in Australia, are predominantly black as one might expect. The pied shag has a white throat and underbelly and black webbed feet. The skin in front of the eye is yellow in breeding adults. The population of the pied shag was estimated to be 1000-5000 mature individuals in 2012. The little black shag is smaller than the black shag. It has a short yellow bill, green eyes, and shinier plumage than the black shag. It is the most widely distributed of the shags. A small percentage is what are called ‘intermediate morph’ or ‘smudgy’ having variegated patches of black and white on the chest and belly. Little black shags develop a crest during breeding season, and often make nests or inhabit areas with pied shags. One interesting characteristic of little black shags is that they often work together and feed in packs driving fish into shallows. The little shag varies in color often with both white and black plumage, and more often frequent inland lakes and waterways.
Beginning in the late 1860s brown trout from Europe were introduced in New Zealand for fishing, and for a least some time in New Zealand history, shags were felt to be taking these fish that could be otherwise caught by humans. Hence, shags were actively killed (there was a bounty for them) and their colonies destroyed. Some people protested.
“Vilified, condemned, outlawed, and with a price on its head, the shag stands as the declared enemy of mankind. Its chief crime is that it has transgressed the law that any animal that comes into competition for food with man has no right to live, a crime that is held to deserve nothing less than indiscriminate persecution.”
– WRB Oliver, ornithologist, 1930
Still, as late as 1945, one angler demanded the wholesale destruction of the black shag in order “to make the Dominion’s waters worthy of the claim to the anglers’ Paradise,” (H.G.Williams, The Shag Menace).
Fortunately, this policy of indiscriminate shag persecution was found to be misguided, and currently shags are a protected species in New Zealand.
Shags nest around Mauao near where we live. You can commonly see them perched on one particular fallen tree on the rocky shoreline, and nesting in another huge pohutukawa tree. Nearby Pukehina Beach also has a colony of shags where I was lucky enough on a winter’s day to take all of these photos.