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Phalacrocorax perspicillatus - Spectacled Cormorant (RMNH 107.865)
RMNH 107.865

Phalacrocoracidae (Cormorants)

Spectacled Cormorant Phalacrocorax perspicillatus Pallas, 1811

  • RMNH 107.865: Sitka (Alaska, USA). Obtained through: Museum St. Petersburg, Russia.

‘Large, stupid, clumsy’
The Spectacled Cormorant has been described as "large, stupid, clumsy and almost flightless". It certainly was a large species, and doubtlessly must have been clumsy on land. In fact its clumsy gait and inexperience with humans may have caused its extinction. This combination made the bird an easy victim for sealers and other hunters who killed the cormorant for its meat. Whether the species was flightless, is open to debate. There is no anatomical evidence that it was.

This large cormorant was discovered in 1741 by the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller. Steller discovered it while on an expedition with Vitus Bering in what is now known as the Bering Sea. At that time, the bird was still numerous on Bering Island, Commander Island and several other islands in the region. Steller's expedition found itself stranded on Bering Island between Siberia and Alaska, where its vessel, the St. Peter, was shipwrecked. During his involuntary stay here, Steller not only found the cormorant. His most famous discovery was a huge sea cow Hydrodamalis gigas, the largest of the sirenians. When Steller's account of the animal reached civilization, the fate of this slow herbivore was sealed. The species was intensively hunted by Russian fur hunters and in 1768, only 27 years after its discovery, it had become extinct.

The Spectacled Cormorant survived until the middle of the 19th century. When Leonhard Stejneger, Norwegian by birth and Curator of the U.S. National Museum, visited the area in 1882, the species had not been seen for 30 years. Natives told Stejneger that its last stronghold had been the small island named Aij Kamen.

Museum specimens
Very few specimens of the Spectacled Cormorant have been preserved. In fact, probably none would have been saved but for Governor Kuprianof of the Sitka district in Alaska. All seven museum specimens known today were sold or donated by him. The specimen in the Leiden Museum was originally shipped to the museum in St. Petersburg, which donated it to Leiden. Of the other six, two skins are stored in Tring (England), two in St. Petersburg, one in Dresden and the sixth in the museum in Helsinki.

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