How to Know the Birds: No. 38, The Exemplary Cormorant

  • What: Double-crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus
  • When: Wednesday, July 1, 2020
  • Where: Baseline Reservoir, Boulder County, Colorado

What do the loggerhead shrike, the horned lark, and the 2020 ABA Bird of the Year, the cedar waxwing, all have in common? If you’re not getting it yet, I’ll add that the raccoon, Procyon lotor, is part of that same grouping.

They all wear “face masks,” an adaptation for reducing glare in visually oriented predators. Enterprising humans apply the same method in environments requiring extreme visual acuity. Like this guy:

Elite athletes are possessed of exceptional visual acuity, sometimes enhanced by painting thick black stripes directly beneath the eyes. This adaption has been experimentally confirmed to reduce glare—essential in high-light environments like hitting a Justin Verlander cutter or detecting and subduing an aerial prey object.

Masks are likewise helpful for promoting good sleep. This guy shows how it’s done:

A sleep mask, properly fitted, can make all the difference between arriving at your destination well-rested vs. exhausted.

Masks can affect how we see—or don’t see—the world around us, no question about it. But masks can serve another useful purpose, indeed a life-saving purpose. This bird shows how it’s done:

We don’t usually think of the orange around the face of the cormorant as a “mask”—but maybe we should reconsider that assessment.

That’s an adult Double-crested Cormorant, and I glimpsed it whilst driving past a big reservoir near my house on the first of the month, the first day of the second half of the year. The cormorant doesn’t leap to mind when we think of mask-wearing birds—until now. See, this isn’t a mask for the eyes. It’s a mask for the nose and moth (or, nares and beak). It’s a mask for 2020.

I’m not one to ordinarily note the passing of the half-year, but January 1–June 30, 2020, was one for the ages. Think back for a moment to your activities on New Years Day of this year. I was doing a Christmas Bird Count, making merry with birding companions. We shook hands, we piled into each other’s cars, we bunched together to share views of birds in the scope and on phone screens. By the end of the month, I was birding in West Mexico, meeting and greeting new friends, delighting in the hustle and bustle of that vibrant region of North America.

Several months—and countless face masks and hand sanitizer squirts—later, everything has changed. We wear masks when we go birding now, and we stay six feet apart. That cormorant on New Half-Years Day had a buddy. Here’s the two of them, demonstrating proper social-distancing:

Less than half a year ago, nobody had ever heard of social-distancing. Today it’s the defining activity of our time.

The novelty of social-distancing measures wore off, for most of us, after about 30 seconds. But we do it, we still do it after all these months, for the greater good. Wearing masks prevents the spread of the debilitating, often deadly, and extremely contagious COVID-19 coronavirus. A face mask, properly affixed, confers substantial benefits on the wearer, but even bigger benefits on every one else. We wear masks for the same reason that we turn our heads when we cough or cover our noses when we sneeze. It benefits those around us. It’s also a courtesy, a point I’ll return to at the end.

There is the notion—selfish and ignorant and wrong-headed—that being compelled to wear a mask is somehow an affront on one’s liberty or freedom or expression. Or, let’s not mince words here, an affront on one’s manhood and privilege. That’s absurd. Look, I could drive through a school zone at 60 miles per hour with little risk of personal bodily injury. The freedom! The manhood! As to the dead child on the curb, bummer. Such behavior is precisely analogous with not wearing a mask in public.

It’s ironic, mask-wearing in particular and social-distancing more generally are, for me, all about opportunity and expression.

The opportunity half of the equation is readily appreciated. Like everyone else in my acquaintance, I want things to get back to normal, or, at least, as close to normal as is prudent and reasonable. Hence, masks. You actually can go shopping, or get your car fixed, or countless other things, and you can do those things safely and responsibly, if you wear a mask. You can go birding, too. Indeed birding is an outstanding activity, a splendid opportunity, in this summer for the record books. Just put on a mask, get out, and go. If you’re all by yourself, or only with persons in your household, you don’t need the mask at all. I mean, have it handy. And if you do suddenly find yourself closing in on someone else’s 6-ft. radius, remember the wisdom of the cormorants:

The best way to protect yourself and others in this challenging and ultimately hopeful summer is to keep 6+ feet apart. But if you can’t, wear a mask. If both (or all) parties wear masks, the risk of infection with the novel coronavirus drops to near zero.

I was all by myself when I watched those cormorants on the floating docks way out in the reservoir. A few days later, though, I found myself, basically unavoidably so, in a fairly congested tourist trap in western Colorado. And that experience got me to thinking about the second benefit of wearing a mask these days: expression. Everywhere I went, I encountered folks going about their business: farm workers and oil field contractors, recreationalists and wayfarers, and more. Especially in the business district, mask-wearing was running at 95%, maybe more like 98%.

I’ll be honest with you: I don’t always feel an especially close connection with farmers and contractors and their ilk, but in this place, and on this occasion, I really did. There was a sense of concern, of kinship and even affection, all about. You could see it in their eyes. I hope it was reflected in mine. Folks flashed peace signs and thumbs-up at perfect strangers; drivers and pedestrians waved at one another; even normally sullen shoppers and joyless clerks were possessed of good spirits and all-round bonhomie. The whole world, masked and distanced, was strangely and suddenly more caring and communitarian than ever before. Wearing a mask, in this day and age, is a powerful expression of courtesy and consideration.

The second half of 2020 is going to be difficult, and I have no intention of downplaying or dismissing that reality. But I wonder if something quietly wondrous is beginning to happen: an awakening of community, of shared responsibility, of devotion to a cause greater than ourselves.



Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted here for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.