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Bird of the Month. The Shag. By John McEwen

Blog | By John McEwen | Oct 04, 2023

Illustration by Carry Akroyd

One genus and three species of animal are named after Aristotle. The only bird among them is the shag (Phalacrocoracidae aristotelis).

Its English name derives from Old English – sceacged/hairy – and refers to the small crest adults sport in the breeding season.

Adam Nicolson, in The Seabird’s Cry, describes an encounter with a nesting shag on his Shiant Isles in the Minch:

‘As I came over a lip of rock, there was the shag right in front of my face, a foot away, juddering and hissing, its whole head shaking in rage and fear, terrifying as much as it was terrified of me, a fluster of beautiful dark green iridescent feathers in the mayhem of kelp stalk and guano that was its nest.

‘Ancientness bellowed at me from inside the filth-lined crevice, where, in the shadows, two or three featherless, scrotal-skinned shag chicks writhed like embryo sea monsters from the past ... as if I had come on some transitional creature, half-pterosaur, half-bird, gleaming in the oily dark of its feather sheath, blazing in the deep rich yellow of its gape and gizzard.

‘Around me, in the air, the other shags coming into the colony honked and hooted, the deep, guttural cry of the arriving males, something from beyond any world I had ever known.’

As this illustrates, seabirds require effort on the birdwatcher’s behalf, the shag more than most. Unlike the commoner and larger cormorant, which carries the name of the species, the shag appears inland exceptionally.

It requires rocky coasts – hence its presence in Shetland, Orkney and the western coasts of the British Isles. But in winter, when the resident population is boosted by juveniles and fish-following migrants – from 17,500 breeding pairs to 110,000 individuals – they pepper the entire British Isles coastline where cliffs, caves and rocks are available.