Red-legged cormorant (Phalacrocorax gaimardi)

Also known as: Gaimard’s cormorant, red-footed cormorant, red-footed shag, red-legged shag
GenusPhalacrocorax (1)
SizeLength: 71 - 76 cm (2)
Wingspan: 91 cm (2)
Weight1.2 - 1.5 kg (3)

The red-legged cormorant is lassified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

An unmistakable and rather strikingly coloured bird, the red-legged cormorant has a grey to greyish-blue body, paler below, with a conspicuous white mark on each side of the neck, and a spotted or scaly appearance on the wings (4) (5) (6). The wing tips and the tail are black, contrasting strongly with the bright orange-red feet. The beak is yellow, with an orange base and orange gular pouch, and the eye is green or grey. There is a scattering of white feathers behind the eye and on the foreneck during the breeding season (4) (5) (6).

The male and female red-legged cormorant are similar in appearance (5), while the juvenile is variable in colouration, but generally browner, paler or mottled below, and with a dark gular pouch and orange or dark-coloured legs (2) (4). Red-legged cormorants from the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of South America differ slightly in size and colouration, and have sometimes been treated as separate subspecies (5).

The red-legged cormorant is found along the coasts of southern South America. On the Pacific coast it occurs from Peru south to Chiloé Island, Chile, and on the Atlantic coast it occurs along the coast of Santa Cruz, Argentina, occasionally reaching as far south as the Strait of Magellan (2) (4) (5).

This cormorant inhabits rocky coastlines, where it nests on inaccessible cliffs, sea caves and rocky islets, and forages in shallow, offshore waters (2) (4) (7).

The red-legged cormorant feeds mainly on fish and invertebrates. Typically hunting alone, but sometimes in flocks, it is an efficient diver, pursuing prey underwater and thought to spend much time foraging on the sea bed (2) (7) (8). Most foraging takes place in waters less than 15 metres deep (4) (8), and within a kilometre or two of the colony (9).

In contrast to its agility underwater, the red-legged cormorant rarely moves around on land, preferring to take off and fly rather than shuffle a few steps (7). Nesting occurs alone or in small, loose colonies (2) (4) (7). The nest is typically built on narrow ledges on vertical rocky walls, high up in sea cave entrances, or on small, rocky islets (2) (10), and is constructed from seaweed, feathers, guano, and even other items such as plastic garbage (2) (11). Breeding may occur at any time of year, but is most common between October and February. Three white eggs are usually laid (2) (6) (7).

The red-legged cormorant has a relatively small global population, which is undergoing a decline mainly as a result of human activities. It is thought to be negatively impacted by the fishing industry, both directly, through entanglement in nets, and indirectly, through competition for prey and from harvesting of kelp beds (4) (10). Hunting and egg-collection are also a problem in some areas (2) (4), as is the capture of adult birds for use as crab bait (11). The main red-legged cormorant colonies in Argentina are concentrated around Puerto Deseado, where coastal development is increasing rapidly and where there are plans to double the size of the industrial harbour. The resulting increase in fishing activity may further impact the red-legged cormorant by causing an increase in its main predator, the kelp gull (Larus dominicanus) (4).

In recent years, dramatic declines in the red-legged cormorant in Peru have been attributed to strong El Niño events, such as that of 1997 to 1998, which can cause large die-offs of kelp beds due to sea temperature rises (4) (10). It is not yet known what effects climate change, and a potential increase in the frequency and severity of El Niño events, could have on the red-legged cormorant. Continued population declines could lead to the species being uplisted to Vulnerable in the future (4).

Over 70 percent of the world population of the red-legged cormorant is found in Chile (11), where discussions are underway over the creation of a network of Marine Protected Areas (4). It has been recommended that the conservation needs of the red-legged cormorant and other seabirds should be considered in the designation of such areas (11). Peru and Argentina are also reported to be improving their network of coastal Marine Protected Areas (4). Further conservation measures recommended for this beautiful seabird include assessing the impact of the proposed industrial harbour in Argentina, monitoring red-legged cormorant populations to identify trends, identifying and monitoring key sites for the species, and investigating levels of hunting and bycatch, as well as ways to minimise interactions with fisheries (4).

To find out more about the red-legged cormorant see:

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  1. IUCN Red List (June, 2009)
  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. Dunning Jr, J.B. (2007) CRC Handbook of Avian Body Masses. Second Edition. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.
  4. BirdLife International (June, 2009)
  5. Blake, E.R. (1977) Manual of Neotropical Birds. Volume 1: Spheniscidae (Penguins) to Laridae (Gulls and Allies). University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.
  6. Aves de Chile (June, 2009)
  7. Nelson, J.B. (2005) Pelicans, Cormorants, and their Relatives. The Pelecaniformes. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  8. Frere, E., Quintana, F. and Gandini, P. (2002) Diving behavior of the red-legged cormorant in southeastern Patagonia, Argentina. The Condor, 104(2): 440 - 444.
  9. Gandini, P., Frere, E. and Quintana, F. (2005) Feeding performance and foraging area of the red-legged cormorant. Waterbirds, 28: 41 - 45.
  10. Zavalaga, C.B., Frere, E. and Gandini, P. (2002) Status of the red-legged cormorant in Peru: what factors affect distribution and numbers?. Waterbirds, 25: 8 - 15.
  11. Frere, E., Gandini, P., Ruiz, J. and Vilina, Y.A. (2004) Current status and breeding distribution of Red-legged Cormorant Phalacrocorax gaimardi along the Chilean coast. Bird Conservation International, 14: 113 - 121.