Counting Cormorants

As a small child I have a vivid memory of a picture in a Wonder Book that showed cormorants  being used by Chinese fishermen. Each bird having a ring round its neck that prevented it eating the fish it caught.

Recently my eldest son Noah brought to my attention a 1979 paper by Pamela Egremont and Miriam Rothschild called ‘Calculating Cormorants’ which described cormorant fishing in China & Japan around 1975.

Fishing at dusk on the Li-Kiang River

Fishing at dusk on the Li-Kiang River

Sometimes a single wading fishermen with a large hat casting a shadow on the water fished with a single bird, but more often a narrow bamboo raft with a single pole was used with 2 or 3 cormorants. These were ringed and tied to the raft. Exactly as shown in K’iP’Ei’s finger painting of 1665.

Finger Painting by K'iP'Ei 17th Century

Finger Painting by K’iP’Ei 17th Century

Egremont and Rothschild report that

“After each cormorant had caught seven fish — and no bird was allowed to return unsuccessfully to its perch — the knots holding their neck bands were loosened and the birds were rewarded by being allowed to fish for themselves. The eighth fish was by long tradition the cormorant’s fish. The procedure must have been followed faithfully in this particular region for decades, for V. Wyndham-Quin* had made careful and more extensive observations of the same phenomenon in 1914. Once these birds have retrieved their tally of seven fish (or to put it more precisely, seven successful sallies have been completed) they stubbornly refuse to move again until their neck ring is loosened. They ignore an order to dive and even resist a rough push or knock, sitting glumly and motionless on their perches………

One is forced to conclude that these highly intelligent birds can count up to seven.”

A footnote added to the proof states

One of us (M.R.) has just visited China (May 1979) and looked in vain for cormorant fishing in progress. Unfortunately the river in Kweilin district is heavily polluted, a matter of great concern to the authorities, but until measures have been taken to improve the situation it is unlikely that cormorant fishing can be pursued in this matchless beauty spot.

Brief Discussion

Counting to seven as illustrated here could simply be a trained response and does not of itself provide any evidence of counting per se, for instance of the ability to count other numerosities.

There are however a number of YouTube videos showing presumably relatively contemporary fishing  using cormorants, for example.

Added 21 July. Lovely picture of cormorant fishing at Xingping, Yangshou county, China in today’s Guardian, and lots of pictures of Japanese cormorant fishing (Ukai) here, but no mention of 8th fish.

Extraneous Information

James VI of Scotland (I of England) for a period took “great delight” in fishing with trained cormorants. (Laufer 1931)

Pamela Egremont (1925-2013) as Lady Egremont was the beautiful chatelaine of Petworth House who charmed Macmillan, Thesiger and Stalin’s daughter

According to her obituary in the Telegraph

(Prime Minister Harold) Macmillan, often shy with women, became devoted to Pamela, who could be very sympathetic. The explorer Wilfred Thesiger found her to be the only member of the opposite sex with whom he felt completely comfortable, apart from his old nanny. Stalin’s daughter, the redoubtable Svetlana, who lived in England for some years, adored and confided in Pamela. Among her other close friends, some of whom she cared for as they became frail, were the writers Gavin Young and Patrick Leigh-Fermor.

Dame Miriam Rothschild (1925-2005) was a world authority on fleas, a practical farmer, animal rights supporter and environmentalist.

According to her obituary in the Guardian

Her interests, although centred on insects and other animals, reached in all directions. To her the moth, its delicate odour, the tiny nematode, the sexual organs of a flea, a Shakespeare sonnet, traditional crafts, great paintings, wild grasses, animals of the field, grandchildren, the place and chemistry of life, all shared the same beauty, the same fascination.

During the Second World War Pamela Egremont and Miriam Rothschild both worked at Bletchley Park.


*Valentine Wyndham Quin was Pamela Egremont’s father.


Egremont E. and Rothschild M. (1979) The calculating cormorants. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society Vol 12 Pages 181-186

Laufer B. (1931) The domestication of the Cormorant in China and Japan. Field Museum Natuarl History (Anthropological Series) 18(3):200-262

About Graham Shawcross

Architect PhD student at Edinburgh University Interested in order, rhythm and pattern in Architectural Design
This entry was posted in Architecture, Brain Physiology, Enumeration and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Counting Cormorants

  1. Time Rig says:

    Fascinating. I saw two cormorants recently in the local river. Such beautiful creatures.

    Thank you for sharing your stories.


  2. Pingback: Wildwood Ritual–Voices on the Wind | Meadow, Grove and Stream

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