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Apr-02-2010 20:32printcomments

Neotropic Cormorant, or Olivaceous Cormorant, Phalacrocorax Brasilianus

Also known as Phalacrocorax olivaceus, Bigua.

(PATAGONIA, Argentina) - Oregon is home to at least three different species of cormorants, the double crested, the pelagic and the Brandt’s. Patagonia has various species too. On Lago Puelo, a half hour drive from El Bolson, we encountered our own; the Bigua, as it is known in Argentina.

The cormorant belongs to the pelican order of birds of which there are five more families of exclusively aquatic and mostly large birds. Common to all of them are large beaks with small nares often without external openings, a featherless and distendable throat pouch, a long neck, an elongated body, long wings, and short fat feet with long toes totally covered with a membrane which aids swimming. The tail is long, with the rachis (central stem of the feather) being very oily and rigid. All of the pelicaniformes are very good fliers. Their food is basically fish, placing them high on the food chain.

The neotropic cormorant, or bigua, is very common in our area and all of South America, and sometimes ranges as far north as Texas and the Great Plains. Their color is a lustrous black, with metallic reflections. Parts of the face and the gula are a chartreuse color. The bill is brownish. The eyes are green, their feet black. During the mating season, they obtain some white striping on their head, neck and upper legs. They nest in the branches of trees, usually, and hatch up to four pale celeste eggs. The young are born naked.

Cormorants have the ability to plunge dive to a few feet. Their naked, distendable throat pouch functions to regulate temperature on hot days. They have a long cylindrical beak that ends in a hook. Unlike other cormorants, the bigua is able to perch in trees. For lengthy periods of time they rest on the ground, with their wings spread to dry. The neotropic cormorant has some other remarkable behaviors. Usually they fly low over the water, making a prolonged run in order to become airborne, but at times they can be seen flying at a greater altitude.

Images courtesy:, National Geographic, and

The Kovacs family says that although this bird is usually silent, in our area (Rio Negro Province) they make a sound at night that is reminiscent of a pig. However, their most interesting habit may be their group behaviors. Though they are encountered solitary or in pairs, sometimes they are seen in groups of 5 to 20. Neotropic cormorants have been observed fishing cooperatively; forming a line across streams or a circle in lakes and striking the surface with their wings, causing fish to flee, whereupon the cormorants dive and try to catch them. And in Japan comorants are trained to fish for humans who prevent them from swallowing the fish by encircling their throats with a soft band.

In Argentina, cormorants' lives are changed by humans in a different way. It is not merely enslavement but threatened extinction...

There was an unhappy coincidence following our recent excursion on the lake with Senor Ors Kovacs, where we observed the bigua. Later that day, we took in the latest Pino Solanas movie Tierra Sublevada, Oro Impuro. It is the wretched story of mountaintop removal mining in Argentina, and details the theft of national resources by multinational mining corporations.

Like the conquistadores of yore, the mining companies come in, threaten or compromise the leadership, fool them or buy them, promise jobs and clinics and schools. They then take the national natural resources and virtually all the profit, tax-free, and leave the toxic mess for the population to deal with.

The pollution, poisoning and devastation caused by mines have been facilitated by the corruption and complicity of academic and political figures--from university geology department heads, to governors such as Chubut Province’s Daniel Das Neves--to both former President Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Send a little donation to the University or to the political campaign of the right person, and amazingly, laws are passed or maybe rescinded, contracts are signed with ease, conditions and restrictions favor only the rapers and pillagers, you know the routine. All this and more is documented in the Pino Solanas film. Mountaintop removal mining is relatively new. Argentina, with its mineral wealth, is now falling victim to a surge of mining that proceeds apace, despite pickets, films, road blockades and other popular campaigns in opposition.

When a mountaintop is removed for extraction of gold, silver, molybendeum, and other minerals, cyanide and other chemicals are mixed with unimaginable quantities of water to extract the metals. Then the water evaporates from the deadly lagoons or flows and leaches downstream to carry death with it. What is left behind is a deadly desert and people in close proximity say all the birds are gone. When you see photos of dead cattle floating in these lagoons you can understand how the water birds are threatened too.

The unhappy coincidence occurred when I began doing research on the cormorant. It turns out that this streamlined relative of the pelican is threatened or endangered, and the primary culprit is open pit mining and its ensuing environmental degradation. Keep fooling around with old Google, and suddenly up pops a website about a world bird symposium sponsored by (drum roll) Rio Tinto, the international mining giant.

It is now standard operating procedure for corporate public relations officials to throw scads of money at the organizations that might be a breeding ground for grass roots opposition. Rio Tinto, Friend of Birds! Right… Of course the latest U.S. Supreme Court decision giving corporations free rein politically is nothing but window dressing for something that has been going on for a long time. Corporate money can move mountains, in more ways than one.

Illustrated Manual of the Birds of Patagonia
Antarctic Argentina and the Islands of the South Atlantic

By: Carlos Julio Kovacs,
Ors Dovacs,
Zsolt Kovacs and
Carlos Mariano Kovacs


Gail Parker is a writer and photographer who lives in Argentina. She and her lifetime mate and husband Eddie Zawaski, who also writes for, are former residents of Oregon, Gail has a great eye for memorable photos in this lush place called Patagonia. Her observations from this amazing wonderland of nature are a fun and welcome addition to our story flow. Watch for Gail's wonderful coverage of the birds of Patagonia in future stories and photojournals here on

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