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From the first, English-speaking naturalists in North America referred to this family of birds as "cormorants." In 1791 William Bartram's Travels listed "Florida Cormorant" as a species he had seen. Thus we escaped the inelegant "shag," the name of a European cousin to American cormorants.

The word "cormorant" has a long history and is derived from the Latin for the popular name "sea crow." In Latin that is corvus marinus. Centuries of use turned that into "cormorant."

The Doubled-crested Cormorant is the one Bartram had earlier named for Florida. However, the scientifically accepted description of this species was published by Rene Lesson (1794-1849) in 1831. Lesson had been a naturalist and naval surgeon on the " Le Coquille" which sailed under the French flag. The ship left France in 1822, returning in 1825. Over the next decade Lesson wrote and published a series of books on birds and general natural history. Lesson named our Double-crested Cormorant Phalacrocorax auritus. "Auritius" means "brushy," referring to the bird's thin pale eyebrows during breeding season. Lesson was the first scientist to see the Bird of Paradise in the southwestern Pacific. He also wrote several works on hummingbirds.

The Double-crested is the only cormorant species common in both California and the eastern U. S.

The Pelagic Cormorant was once known in the U.S. as Baird's Cormorant. Its range is limited to the northern Pacific in an arc of nearshore waters from Japan northward to Alaska, then south to Baja California. This bird was first described for science by Peter Simon Pallas, a German scientist working for the Russian Zoological Museum in St. Petersburg. Pallas (1741-1811) moved to Russia in 1768 and joined a natural history expedition to Siberia from 1768-74. It is possible he collected the first Pelagic Cormorant himself, or it may have been sent back to Saint Petersburg by another Russian explorer.

Pallas also wrote the first scientific descriptions of several other northern Pacific birds including Steller's Eider, Tufted Puffin, Pigeon Guillemot, Red-throated Loon and Cassin's Auklet.

Brandt's Cormorant is the third common species found in California waters. Its breeding colonies are primarily along the California and Baja coast though it is found as far north as Alaska. The first scientific description of this species was written by Johann Friedrich von Brandt (1802-79). He was another German scientist working in the Zoological Museum at St. Petersburg, Russia. He had arrived in Russia in 1831. In 1838 he published his brief description and Latin name for this "new" cormorant species.

Brandt himself never visited the America, his work largely confined to museum curation. It is likely the specimen he had in St. Petersburg came from either Baron Langsdorff who visited the eastern Pacific from 1803-6 or from Johann Eschscholtz who visited the Pacific shores of North America twice between 1815 and 1826. Both naturalists spent some time in San Francisco which then was composed of Mission Dolores and the Presidio. Eschscholtz was one of the first botanists in central California. He collected and described many common California coastal plants. He was honored with the genus name of the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) by a fellow scientist. That original poppy specimen was collected in San Francisco.

Besides his namesake cormorant Brandt also wrote the first descriptions of the Red-legged Kittiwake and the Spectacled Eider (now extinct). His description of the kittiwake was first published by another scientist, however. His lengthy productive scientific career in Russia included not just birds but mammals, fishes and fossil studies. Brandt's Cormorant remains among us, a reminder that much of the early scientific work in the northern Pacific was done by early Russian expeditions before 1840.


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