Cormorants are bad-ass birds. They dress in black and float low in the water, like slammed hot rods. They loiter upright on rocks, like surly teenagers, and they eat things bigger than their head.* But I saw cormorants doing something really impressive a few weeks ago. I watched two dozen cormorants hunting as a pack.
There’s a small inlet on the San Francisco Bay near my job, shaped like a soup spoons you might use in a Chinese restaurant. At the blind end is a deep bowl, and the channel out to the larger bay both narrows and gets shallow. At low tide, I saw the cormorants in action. They were in a line formation, spread across the width of the inlet, all swimming at the same speed. They were sweeping a school of fish in front of them, towards the narrow neck of the inlet. As they swam, each cormorant would dive, take a fish, and reemerge back in the advancing line. They were stirring up enough fish to attract terns, who flew along the leading edge of the cormorant advance, grabbing their own quick meals.
The next morning, I saw cormorants doing the same thing. I thought, “They’re cooperating,” and that realization gave me a little rush. Why does seeing animals doing clever things feel like a big deal? Maybe because when I was in elementary school, we were taught that animals were basically instinct-driven machines. We learned that plants were as dumb as rocks and Pluto was a planet. Everybody is born with a fixed number of brain cells, and all you do is lose them as you age.
I’m really glad that all of those notions are bullshit. Neuroplasticity means I can get smarter. Pluto is one among many new, weird objects in our solar neighborhood. Plants talk to each other. Animals have feelings, memories, and mad skills. All of these new perspectives describe a friendlier universe than the one I learned about years ago, and it encourages me.
As to the cormorants: this hunting behavior is learned behavior, and in my book, that’s culture. It’s not as simple as the flocking behavior that their prey, the fish school, is engaged in. Schooling fish is an example of emergent behavior: there are simple rules governing the fish, but no overall plan. The cormorants are headed in a particular direction for a particular purpose - they have a plan.**
Primate researcher Frans De Waal entitled a recent book, Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? I’m pretty sure the answer is “barely.”
*I stand in awe of things birds can swallow whole. Until you’ve seen a cormorant swallow a black bullhead, you haven’t lived.
**There’s a great detailed description of cormorant behavior in the San Francisco Bay here. It was written in 1941, but the birds today are doing the same thing.