Karnataka – and India – is home to 3 species of cormorants and 1 species of darter. All four are widespread across Karnataka and breed in the state. Nests are often seen on boat rides in Ranganathittu, Kabini Reservoir and Bhadra Reservoir, and other heronries and water-bodies. Karnataka is also home to the 3 species of ibises and 1 species of spoonbill found in India. All these four species are found across Karnataka and at least three of them breed in the state.
Cormorants and Darters
These birds are often seen perched on branches close to water, with their wings wide open as they dry their feathers after a dive. They are all largely black in colour; it’s no wonder then that cormorants and darters are referred to as ನೀರುಕಾಗೆ (water crow) in Kannada. They are voracious piscivores, sometimes inviting the ire of fisherpersons. All the four species are often seen fishing in the same water body. When a fish is caught, the bird surfaces out of the water to swallow it, and often, other water-birds try to steal the quarry from the hunter.
Historically, they were all placed under the family Phalacrocoracidae, but darters are now placed under their own family, Anhingidae. Cormorants are believed to have diverged from darters in the late Oligocene. There are many common traits that show how closely these families are related. In flight, they hold their necks extended. They all have a unique bone at the back of the skull known as ‘occipital style’ or ‘os nuchale’ – this anchors the muscles around it, enabling the bird to close the lower mandible with more force. The birds’ diving capabilities are excellent and they propel themselves use their wings and webbed feet. In the words of ornithologists Salim Ali and S. Dillon Ripley, cormorants and darters are “unlike grebes, swimming underwater with the use of wings, literally flying beneath the surface, in pursuit of fish.”
Cormorants are distinguished from darters by their beaks that are hooked at the tip; darters’ beaks have a pointed tip. And darters have characteristic long and slender necks, giving them the moniker ‘snake bird’, as they look like one when swimming with their body underwater with only their long neck visible.
Let’s read more about cormorants and darters below, arranged in increasing order of size.
Little Cormorant (Microcarbo niger)
The Little Cormorant is easily recognised by its small size, small beak and dark eyes. In breeding plumage, the bird is entirely black. In non-breeding plumage, the body turns brownish with a white patch on the throat.
They are often seen singly or in small groups around village tanks and creeks, but can congregate in large numbers near bigger water bodies and at breeding sites. Little Cormorants are widely distributed across South Asia, and their range extends till Java in Indonesia.
Indian Cormorant (Phalacrocorax fuscicollis)
The Indian Cormorant is slightly bigger than the Little Cormorant, and is distinguished by its long slender bill and striking emerald eyes. It is mostly black in breeding plumage, with a scaly-bronzed appearance on its wings and upperparts. Small tufts of white feathers appear on each side of the neck.
They are often encountered in large flocks. They are known to fish communally, driving shoals of fish into a corner, while feeding on them. Indian Cormorants are found across peninsular India, extending eastwards into North-east India and further till Cambodia.
Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo)
The largest of the cormorants of Karnataka (and India), they are distinguished by the white facial skin and throat and bright yellow gular pouch. They are usually found singly or in small groups. In part of Asia, including China and Japan, Great Cormorants are trained in the traditional practice of cormorant fishing. Fishermen tie a snare around the bird’s throat, which prevents it from swallowing fish. When the bird catches a fish, it is brought back to the boat and made to regurgitate the fish.
Great Cormorant is also the most widely distributed cormorant species, ranging from New Zealand, South-east Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, Europe, parts of Africa, to North America and Greenland.
Oriental Darter (Anhinga melanogaster)
The Oriental Darter aka snake-bird is a distinct-looking bird, with its long neck, sharp beak and long, fan-like tail. Unlike cormorants, they are not known to participate in cooperative groups. While hunting underwater, they move their necks forward and backward, spearing their targets with a spring-like action of the neck. They then surface out of the water, before readjusting the fish and swallowing it.
The Oriental Darter is rated as Near Threatened by IUCN, with an estimated global population of 22,000 birds (and decreasing). It is threatened by habitat loss, pollution and hunting.
Ibises and Spoonbills
A defining feature of the family Threskiornithidae is their characteristic long bills – curved downwards in ibises and flattened in spoonbills. Once thought to be two distinct groups within the family, genetic studies have revealed spoonbills to be nested within the old world ibises and new world ibises, forming their own clade.
Ibises and spoonbills stand tall on long, bare legs, which are useful for wading into shallow water. They are usually found near stagnant or slow-flowing waters, with some ibises even preferring drier areas. They feed on a variety of small animals including fish, insects, worms and molluscs.
Black-headed Ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus)
With its black head, a neck that is bare of feathers, and beak and legs contrasting with its white body, the Black-headed Ibis is an unmistakable bird. During the breeding season, they have a blood-red patch under the wings. They are often found in moderate to large groups, foraging together. In addition to wetlands, these ibises are often seen around irrigated agricultural fields.
With a population estimate of 10,000 to 19,999 individuals and a decreasing trend, the Black-headed Ibis is classified as Near Threatened by IUCN. Potential threats include habitat loss and change in agricultural patterns.
Indian Black Ibis (Pseudibis papillosa)
A dark bird overall, the Indian Black Ibis is readily identified by the red skin on its nape and white patch on the shoulder. It has a bare head with a feathered neck. In flight, it sometimes has a loud braying call. They are usually solitary or seen in small groups.
The Indian Black Ibis is less dependent on water than its relatives and is often found farther away from the shore of water-bodies or in dry agricultural fields. They are omnivorous, feeding on carrion and grain too, in addition to frogs, insects and other small invertebrates. They usually don’t nest in heronries, preferring to nest by themselves or in a small colony of 3-5 nests.
Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus)
Much smaller in size than the preceding species, the Glossy Ibis is the most widespread Ibis species and is found on all continents barring Antarctica. In its breeding plumage, the bird turns dark brown, glistening with various shades of green and purple, giving it its common name.
It is considered a winter migrant, with large flocks seen around water-bodies and agricultural fields in the colder months. While the Glossy Ibis has been recorded to breed in different parts of India including Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, there is no published breeding record from Karnataka.
Eurasian Spoonbill (Platalea leucorodia)
A flat bill with a broadened tip gives the Eurasian Spoonbill its common as well as generic name. It moves its beak sideways in a semi-circular fashion, while feeding in shallow water. They are gregarious and engage in communal feeding. The most widespread of all spoonbills, Eurasian Spoonbills range from the northeast of Africa through Europe and Asia.
- Praveen, J, Subramanya, S., Raj, V. M., 2016. A checklist of the birds of Karnataka. Indian BIRDS 12 (4&5): 89–118
- Richard Grimmett, Carol Inskipp, Tim Inskipp, 2011. Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Second Edition; Oxford University Press
- Ali, S; SD Ripley (1978). Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan. Volume 1 (2nd ed.). New Delhi: Oxford University Press. pp. 37–46, 109–118.
- BirdLife International. 2016. Anhinga melanogaster. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22696712A93582012. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22696712A93582012.en. Accessed on 08 April 2022.
- BirdLife International. 2016. Threskiornis melanocephalus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22697516A93618317. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22697516A93618317.en. Accessed on 08 April 2022.