Little pied cormorant (Phalacrocorax melanoleucos)

Also known as: frilled shag, little black and white cormorant, little black and white shag, little black-and-white cormorant, little black-and-white shag, little cormorant, little river shag, little shag, white-throated shag
Synonyms: Hydrocorax melanoleucos, Microcarbo melanoleucos
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPelecaniformes
FamilyPhalacrocoracidae
GenusPhalacrocorax (1)
SizeLength: 55 - 65 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 84 - 91 cm (2)
Weight487 - 900 g (2)
Top facts

The little pied cormorant is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

One of Australia’s most common water birds (4), the little pied cormorant (Phalacrocorax melanoleucos) is a relatively small, squat species (3), and is the only long-tailed cormorant of its size to have pied plumage (2). Entirely black above and white below, the little pied cormorant has a dusky face, with the white of the underparts extending to above the eye in adult birds (4). The white parts of the birds are often stained reddish or orange-brown (2).

Juvenile little pied cormorants are similar to the adult birds (4), but are duller (2) and lack the white above the eye (4). Newly hatched chicks are naked, but grow black down (2).

Three subspecies of the little pied cormorant are currently recognised, each being found in a different geographical location. The subspecies Phalacrocorax melanoleucos brevirostris has several colour morphs, including a pied morph, which looks much like the nominate subspecies Phalacrocorax melanoleucos melanoleucos. There are also white-throated and dark morphs, and an intermediate morph of P. m. brevirostris in which the underparts are white with black speckles. It has been suggested that this subspecies may actually be a distinct species (2).

The little pied cormorant is widespread in Australia (2) (3) (4) (5), being found across the country with the exception of the arid centre (3). This pied species is also found in Japan and on various islands in the South Pacific, including Indonesia, New Caledonia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu (5). It has also been recorded as an occasional visitor to Java and Bali (2).

While it is mostly a sedentary species, the little pied cormorant is known to be partially nomadic in Australia’s interior, moving in response to local water conditions. Such movements lead to the little pied cormorant being seen more frequently on the coast during periods of severe drought (2).

The three subspecies of little pied cormorant all have different geographical distributions, with the nominate subspecies P. m. melanoleucos occurring from eastern Indonesia to the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia. Phalacrocorax melanoleucos brevicauda is found on Rennell Island in the Solomon Islands, while P. m. brevirostris occurs in New Zealand, notably on Stewart Island (2).

A highly adaptable species, the little pied cormorant can be found on either fresh or salt water (2) (3) (4). This species tends to prefer temporary fresh floodwaters (2), frequenting reservoirs, swamps and even lakes and ornamental ponds (3), but it can also be found in coastal waters including estuaries, lagoons, mangrove swamps and offshore islands (2).

While the little pied cormorant can be found on water bodies of almost any size (4), it tends to forage on large lakes and open water (3), where it is usually limited to the shallow margins (2) (3).

Areas with bushes or trees near or over water are usually required for breeding (2) (3), and such nesting areas typically occur in freshwater wetlands such as lakes, rivers and billabongs (3). The little pied cormorant can also sometimes be seen perching on stumps, earth banks, rocks and artificial structures (3).

While small flocks of little pied cormorants may form when the birds are foraging or roosting (3), this species does not fish cooperatively (2). Feeding mainly by pursuit-diving (2), the little pied cormorant catches prey by performing deep underwater dives, using both feet to kick outward in unison (4). However, evidence suggests that this species is only capable of diving for short periods of time (3).

The varied diet of the little pied cormorant includes invertebrates such as freshwater crayfish, shrimps, snails and aquatic insects (2) (3) (4). Crustaceans are a particularly important component of this species’ diet (2) (3) (4) (6), with crayfish claws being shaken off before the animal is consumed (2). However, vertebrates such as fish, frogs and tadpoles are also sometimes taken (2) (3) (4) (6). In Australia, a variety of introduced fish species, including carp (Carassius auratus) and perch (Perca fluviatilis), are frequently eaten by the little pied cormorant, forming a significant portion of the diet (2). The little pied cormorant has also been recorded eating plant material, including seaweed (3) (6).

The little pied cormorant is generally regarded as being a solitary bird (3), except during the breeding season when it may form colonies (2) (3) (4). These breeding colonies are often formed alongside those of other colonial-nesting birds (2) (3), including the little black cormorant (Phalacrocorax sulcirostris) (4). The little pied cormorant’s breeding season is irregular, and breeding may occur at any time of year (2), with local weather conditions and flooding determining the timing of breeding peaks (2) (3).

Nesting primarily in freshwater wetlands such as lakes and swamps (3), the little pied cormorant constructs its nest in trees or bushes (2) (3) (4), and occasionally on rocks (2). The nest itself is a platform made of sticks and bark, lined with leaves and grass (2) (3) (4). The little pied cormorant typically lays three to five eggs (2) (3), with four being most common (2). While there is no information available on the period of incubation and of fledging in this species (3), both adults are known to share in egg incubation and care of the young (4). The sudden onset of drought conditions sometimes leads the adult little pied cormorants to abandon their nests (3).

Little pied cormorant chicks are known to be predated by the Australasian harrier (Circus approximans). When the adult little pied cormorant feels threatened, it will display intensively, spreading both its wings in an alarm posture and crouching with its neck erect and beak agape as it calls (7).

The little pied cormorant is widespread in Australia (2), with an extremely large range and population (5), and is not currently considered to be globally threatened (2). However, this species has suffered somewhat as a result of the alteration and destruction of wetland areas, and it is thought that it may be negatively affected in New South Wales by plans to remove introduced fish species on which this bird feeds extensively (2).

There are currently no known conservation measures in place for the little pied cormorant.

Find out more about the little pied cormorant:

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This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Sargatal, J. (1992) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 1: Ostrich to Ducks. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Rogers, K. and Ralph, T.J. (2010) Floodplain Wetland Biota in the Murray-Darling Basin: Water and Habitat Requirements. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  4. Birds in Backyards - Little pied cormorant (February, 2013)
    http://www.birdsinbackyards.net/species/Microcarbo-melanoleucos
  5. BirdLife International - Little pied cormorant (February, 2013)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=3668
  6. Barker, R. and Vestjens, W. (1989) Food of Australian Birds 1. Non-passerines. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  7. Powlesland, R.G., Luke, I.J. and Jansen, P. (2002) Predation by Australasian harrier (Circus approximans) of little shag (Phalacrocorax melanoleucos) clutches. Notornis, 49: 266-268.