1. The numbers of cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo feeding at English freshwater fisheries during winter have increased rapidly over the last 20 years, causing concern among fishery managers and anglers.
2. In order to assess the extent of freshwater feeding, stable isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen (δ13C and δ15N) in feathers of wild cormorants from inland freshwater fisheries were compared with those in the feathers of piscivorous birds with marine diets (captive ‘marine-fed’ cormorants, free-ranging shags Phalacrocorax aristotelis) and freshwater diets (juvenile goosanders Mergus merganser).
3. Isotope signatures of feathers represent the diet at the time of growth. Feathers grown at different times of the year were taken from wild cormorants; each feather type therefore represented the diet over a different temporal scale.
4. Isotopic analyses of feathers indicated that, when shot, nearly all of the cormorants had been feeding entirely on freshwater prey. The mean δ13C value of primary feathers growing when birds were shot was –22·2‰, indicative of an entirely freshwater diet.
5. The move to freshwater habitats from coastal breeding grounds occurred over several months, but once established cormorants appear to have fed at freshwater sites throughout the autumn and winter.
6. The suitability of using a two-source isotopic mixing model in order to quantify the extent of freshwater feeding in piscivorous birds is discussed.
7. Although the results indicate long-term residency and feeding in freshwater systems, they do not indicate whether birds were feeding regularly at the sites at which they were shot, or the composition of the diet. It is recommended that further studies using telemetry and multiple isotope analyses be carried out in order to address these issues.