The Double-crested Cormorant and the Anhinga are both birds that make their home in Florida year-round. They both live in similar habitats and because they are so similar in size and coloration, they can often be mistaken for one another without a good pair of binoculars and a bird book. Although they might look nearly identical to the untrained eye, the Double-crested Cormorant and the Anhinga have unique qualities that set them apart.
At first glance, the Double-crested Cormorant and the Anhinga may seem nearly identical but there are several ways that they can be properly identified. They are roughly the same size although the Anhinga can grow significantly bigger, standing at a maximum of 36 inches tall while the Double-crested Cormorant stands at 28 inches tall at most.
Both birds are known for their long necks but the Anhinga is famous for its long, snake-like neck that has earned it the nickname “snakebird”. As the Anhinga swims, it submerges its entire body underwater, leaving just its curved neck out looking like a snake rising up to strike. The bills of these birds are also distinctly different, with the Double-crested Cormorant possessing a hooked bill and the Anhinga having a straight, pointed bill.
Both birds also share a similar coloration. The Anhinga are black with silvery white patches on their wings that can be seen easily when they are basking in the sun. The Double-crested Cormorant is a dark brown or black color with black legs and feet. The Double-crested Cormorant can also be distinguished from the Anhinga during its breeding season, when breeding adults develop white or black crests above their eyes.
Both birds prefer to live near water, in swamps, lakes, marshes, and rivers. This makes Florida a perfect year-round home for them and a great destination for the Double-crested Cormorants that live in the northern regions to spend the winter months. The Double-crested Cormorant has a much wider distribution than the Anhinga. It can be found throughout much of North America but migrates to warmer climates during the winter. The Anhinga, on the other hand, lives permanently in the southeastern U.S. and much of South America.
The Anhinga also prefers shallow, slow-moving waters with trees and bushes where it can perch for drying and sunning. Double-crested Cormorants prefer larger bodies of water that are more open for fishing but they nest in smaller lagoons and ponds with other cormorants and they require plenty of high perches as they spend much of their day resting.
Because Double-crested Cormorants form colonies in trees during breeding season, these trees can become overwhelmed by their droppings and topple, requiring the birds to switch to nesting on the ground. When spotted during flight, the Anhinga has the ability to soar over long distances while the Double-crested Cormorant will be soon continuously flapping its wings.
Fish is the primary diet of both the Double-crested Cormorant and the Anhinga and they both display similar behaviors when hunting. Although fish make up the bulk of their food source, the occasional amphibian or crustacean will find its way into their diets. Both birds dive underwater to catch their prey although the Anhinga prefers to slowly swim through underwater vegetation and the Double-crested Cormorant chases its prey with the help of its strong, webbed feet.
The spear-like beak of the Anhinga allows it to pierce through its prey while the Double-crested Cormorant uses its hooked beak to snag fish. The Double-crested Cormorant is also well-known for its impressive diving skills. It can dive up to 60 feet underwater and stay submerged for more than a minute. Both birds have feathers that aren’t waterproof, so they must come out of the water occasionally to dry out their wings to avoid becoming waterlogged.
Unique facts and history surround both birds as well. In addition to being known as snakebird, the Anhinga is also sometimes called “water turkey” because of its long tail. In fact, the word “anhinga” means “water turkey” and the bird was given this name for that reason.
Anhinga mating pairs are monogamous and perform rituals when incubating their eggs in which the parents intertwine their necks and the incubating parent passes the nesting materials to the other so they can take over with the incubation. Young Anhingas have also been known to drop out of their nests and into the water below and swim away if they sense danger.
Double-crested Cormorants have a long history of helping humans. In Asia, Great Cormorants were used for more than 2000 years to catch fish. Today, the story is a little different. Fish farmers are often frustrated by Cormorants who can eat millions of dollars worth of catfish each year from farm ponds.
Because both birds are a part of Florida’s natural landscape year-round, they are quite frequently spotted. Major nesting areas for the Double-crested Cormorant can be found along the east coast from Volusia County south to Martin County and into Florida Bay and the Lower Keys.
On the Gulf coast, Double-crested Cormorant nesting colonies can be found from Cedar Key into Lee County. Inland Florida also provides plenty of nesting areas for them because of its many lakes, marshes, and rivers. A great place to spot the Anhinga is at the Everglades National Park. A walk along the Anhinga trail will provide many opportunities to see these birds as well as many other types of wildlife. Like the Double-crested Cormorant, Anhingas can also be spotted among Florida’s many swamps, marshes, and lakes.
Florida offers many unique creatures in its natural landscape and even two birds as outwardly similar as the Double-crested Cormorant and the Anhinga can have fascinating differences. They may both be water birds known for their diving and fishing but their methods of hunting, their flying patterns, and even how they swim are quite different. When observed closely enough, the differences in their physical appearance can also be spotted and even new bird watchers or casual observers can find themselves being able to distinguish between these two birds.