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Phalacrocorax penicillatus - Brandt's Cormorant

Brandt's Cormorant image

Geographic range:

Alaska to Baja California, Mexico

Key features:

Large black bird with an elongate neck. During the breeding season, adults have a blue throat patch and the head, neck and scapulars acquire fine, white plumes.

Similar species:

Phalacrocorax auritus -- Double-crested Cormorant
Phalacrocorax pelagicus -- Pelagic Cormorant


bay (rocky shore), estuary, exposed rocky shore, kelp forest, pelagic zone, protected rocky shore

Primary common name:

Brandt's Cormorant

General grouping:

Seabirds and shorebirds

ITIS code:


Geographic Range

Range Description:

Phalacrocorax penicillatus can be found along the Pacific Coast from southern Alaska to Baja California, Mexico.

Subtidal depth notes:

Have been observed by SCUBA divers in Monterey Bay foraging for benthic invertebrates at a depth of at least 30 ft.


bay (rocky shore), estuary, exposed rocky shore, kelp forest, pelagic zone, protected rocky shore

Habitat notes:

Phalacrocorax penicillatus typically occupies inshore coastal waters, often in areas with kelp beds or rocky shores. They can also be found in oceanic waters, large bays, and occasionally estuaries or coastal lagoons and are almost always found on salt or brackish water. Nesting colonies are usually located on gentle slopes on the windward sides of islands, but can also be found on steep cliffs ledges and man-made jetties. The Monterey Peninsula has a resident population feeding in large flocks along the rocky coast, often just beyond the kelp beds. They are also seen regularly inside Moss Landing Harbor area and in Elkhorn Slough. Brandt's Cormorant is affected by El Nino conditions that warms surface waters and depresses prey abundance. Cormorant numbers rebound during favorable oceanic conditions. In the late 1990's Brandt's Cormorants started nesting on the Coast Guard jetty at Monterey Harbor. The number of active nests have increased to at least 120. This jetty used to be used almost exclusively by seal lions. A change in sea lion preferred haul-out areas has allowed the cormorants to nest in greater numbers on the jetty. Should the sea lions return to the jetty in spring in large numbers again the cormorants will not be able to continue to use this site. However until that happens this is probably the best place to view a breeding colony up close.


Relative abundance:

Phalacrocorax penicillatus is most common from California to Washington and is the most common cormorant on the California coast.

Species Description

General description:

Phalacrocorax penicillatus is a large member of the cormorant family that inhabits the Pacific Coast of North America and occurs only in marine environments. Its species name, penicillatus, is Latin for a painterís brush and refers to the white plumes on its neck and back during the early breeding season. Phalacrocorax penicillatus belongs to the same genus at the Double-Crested Cormorant, Phalacrocorax auritus, and the Pelagic Cormorant, Phalacrocorax pelagicus.

Distinctive features:

Phalacrocorax penicillatus is large and has a long body and a long, slender neck with a relatively short tail. Adults are almost solid glossy, black with a buffy brown throat. The bill is narrow, hooked and black and the legs and feet are black. The eyes are green to turquoise. Juveniles are dark brown above and below with a buffy white throat and chest. Birds of all ages and phases have a band of pale buffy feathers bordering the throat pouch. During the breeding season, adults have a blue throat patch and the head, neck and scapulars acquire fine, white plumes. Phalacrocorax penicillatus distinctively flies with a straight neck and when in the water, their bodies are mostly submerged. In all ages, Phalacrocorax penicillatus appears more uniformly dark above than the Double-Crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus), and the wings and tail are proportionately shorter. Phalacrocorax penicillatus can be distinguished from the Pelagic Cormorant (Phalacrocorax pelagicus) by its larger head and bill. Phalacrocorax penicillatus can be identified on shore by its tendency to be an upright percher with an S-shaped neck.


Phalacrocorax penicillatus can grow to a length of 89 cm, with a wingspan of 122 cm and a weight of 2.7 kg. Males grow slightly larger than females.

Natural History

General natural history:

Phalacrocorax penicillatus can be seen fishing in large flocks, often mixed with other seabirds and even sometimes foraging with sea lions. They are sociable and active in all seasons and will fly in long lines, low over the water, between feeding and roosting grounds. They communally roost on rocky headlands and in contrast to most other waterbirds, Phalacrocorax penicillatus does not linger in the water due to the fact that they lack oil glands to keep their feathers dry. It is silent at sea but will croak during the breeding season and is the least vocal of the North American cormorants at the nest, making sounds that are only audible from a few feet away.


Phalacrocorax penicillatus feeds on a wide variety of fishes, including juvenile rockfishes, Sebastes, and Pacific Herring, Clupea pallasii pallasii. They also eat some squid, shrimp and crabs.

Feeding behavior


Feeding behavior notes:

Phalacrocorax penicillatus may feed alone or in small flocks and will adapt its prey choice according to underwater habitat. They pursue and obtain most prey underwater through diving and using their feet for propulsion. Phalacrocorax penicillatus can forage from the surface down to depths of up to 50 meters, with most foraging taking place closer to the sea bottom. They grab their prey, usually fish, in their bill without spearing it.

March - August



The breeding season for Phalacrocorax penicillatus lasts from March to August and like other cormorants, they are colonial nesters. The male chooses the nest site on the ground or on rocky outcroppings and then attracts the female to it. Once they are paired up, the male gathers nest material from the water while the female builds the nest. The nest is usually made of seaweed, eelgrass and algae that are held together by scat. Couples may reuse the nest, adding more material to it each year. The female usually lays one to three bluish white eggs, but can lay as many as six. The male and female both incubate the eggs and both regurgitate food for the young.

September - February


Phalacrocorax penicillatus tends to be a permanent resident, however in the main part of its range from California to Washington, Phalacrocorax penicillatus is tied to the food sources associated with rich, upwelled waters along the coast. During the winter nonbreeding season, when upwelling is diminished, populations may exhibit limited local migration as birds redistribute along the coast, moving to where food is locally available.
Click on an image below to view a larger version in the SIMoN Photo Library. You will also be able to view important information on each photo such as photographer, date, caption and more.
Alden, P., F. Heath, R. Keen, A. Leventer, and W. Zomlefer. 2002. National Audubon Society Field Guide to California. A.A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Dunn, J.L. 1999. Birds of North America. National Geographic, Washington, D.C. 464 p.
National Park Service. 2005 (Updated 06/23/05). Presidio of San Francisco. World Wide Web electronic publication., Accessed [06/22/06].
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
All About Birds

Seattle Audubon Society.