The Little Pied Cormorant Phalacrocorax melanoleucos is Australia’s smallest, but often most common, cormorant. Unlike its larger cousins, it does not seem to be bedeviled by other common names. It is a distinctive species, about the size of a duck. Not only is it black and white, but, when in breeding condition it shows a small crest at the front of its head unlike others, though the great cormorant sometimes shows a tuft of longer feathers at the back of its head. The little pied cormorant also has a much smaller, yellow beak without very much of the characteristic hook at the end that other cormorants have. Like all cormorants, there is no real difference in appearance between males and females. Young birds look like murkier versions of the adults, but their black crown extends all the way through the eye to the beak. They also have a black triangle extending from their feet upwards.
Little pied cormorants mainly eat crustaceans such as shrimps and yabbies and seldom trouble fisherman, though they are just as likely to be illegally persecuted by the ignorant. If needs be they can eat a larger variety of water animals, from insects and shrimps to yabbies, tadpoles, and small frogs, but these apparently form only a small percentage of their diet. Little pied cormorants use their webbed feet to swim with great agility in order to chase down prey underwater.
This species can be found on any body of water from garden fish ponds to the ocean near the coast. They will even frequent roadside ditches if there is food available. Like other cormorants they will live and breed alone of in colonies of up to thousands of individuals. When nesting they make a platform of sticks with a few gum leaves in trees or even low shrubs. Unlike the other cormorants, they seem to like hunting alone.
Little pied cormorants are highly nomadic. They will breed when conditions are good but will readily desert their nests if water levels drop rapidly. Their feathers are not waterproof, as in other cormorants and the darter. They too have to hang their wings out to dry after a swim, so that they can lose water and regain the ability to fly quickly if needed. And like other cormorants, when not hunting underwater, they swim half submerged.
As water levels declined in the Goulburn Wetlands, by May 2013 it was so shallow and the pond life so densely concentrated that there was a feast for all waders. It may have been too shallow to dive but the little pieds, unlike the other species of cormorant, not only stayed but actively rolled around in the mud, swallowing everything that came their way. We were treated to the site of some very filthy by very happily full little cormorants.
Little pied cormorants do not deserve persecution by fishermen. As mentioned above they are primarily insect and small crustacean eaters rather than fish eaters. One of the real bonuses of cormorants is their ability to eat large numbers of the introduced Plague Minnow, the species now thought responsible for the widespread extinction of the three species of bell frog which until the 1960s and 1970s were an abundant in the Southern Tablelands. See the discussion in the page on the Great Cormorant for more about cormorants and farm dams.