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In recent years, three preferred treatments of the cormorant family have emerged: either to leave all living cormorants in a single genus, Phalacrocorax, or to split off a few species such as the imperial shag complex (in Leucocarbo) and perhaps the flightless cormorant.Alternatively, the genus may be disassembled altogether and in the most extreme case be reduced to the great, white-breasted and Japanese cormorants.They range around the world, except for the central Pacific islands.No consistent distinction exists between cormorants and shags.Cormorants nest in colonies around the shore, on trees, islets or cliffs.They are coastal rather than oceanic birds, and some have colonised inland waters – indeed, the original ancestor of cormorants seems to have been a fresh-water bird.

The first two lineages (and possibly the flightless cormorant) are basal and cannot be assigned to either subfamily.

is followed here for three reasons: first, it is preferable to tentatively assigning genera without a robust hypothesis.

Second, it makes it easier to deal with the fossil forms, the systematic treatment of which has been no less controversial than that of living cormorants and shags.

All cormorants have preen gland secretions that are used ostensibly to keep the feathers waterproof. The cormorants are a group traditionally placed within the Pelecaniformes or, in the Sibley–Ahlquist taxonomy, the expanded Ciconiiformes.

Some sources Cormorants are colonial nesters, using trees, rocky islets, or cliffs. This latter group is certainly not a natural one, and even after the tropicbirds have been recognised as quite distinct, the remaining Pelecaniformes seem not to be entirely monophyletic.

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