Along the Path: A Wonderful Bird is the Pelican

By Susan Rothrock Deo

A Wonderful Bird Is the Pelican/  His bill can hold more than his belican.

    [from a limerick by Dixon Lanier Merritt]

We watch them floating in formation along the coast, or they watch us walking by on the pier where they sit stoically on a post. We marvel at their persistence when they hang around fishing boats waiting for a handout. Brown pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis, are reminiscent of pterodactyls,

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even though birds did not descend from those flying reptiles. Occasionally we see a white pelican, but that species is generally found near inland water bodies. Adult brown pelicans are gray-brown in color and about four feet long. Both males and females have yellow heads and white necks. During breeding season, the back and sides of their neck turn a rich, dark reddish-brown.

Pelicans feed by plunging into the sea and stunning small fish with the impact of their large body. Some adaptations that keep them from getting hurt are: they stiffen the muscles surrounding their neck vertebrae and throw their wings straight backwards to avoid breaking these bones, air sacks around their neck and breast area inflate—like car airbag—to protect sensitive areas, and the instant their jaws open under water it slows them down. Pelicans scoop up fish in their expandable throat pouch, the “gular pouch.” They drain the water out by tilting their head and contracting the pouch muscles. (Gulls love to come by then and steal some fish!) Food is swallowed whole and is not stored in the pouch, even though it can hold two to three times what a pelican’s stomach can. They eat mostly fish, but also prey on crustaceans, amphibians, turtles, and even other birds. If it can fit in their throat, its fair game!

Pelicans nest in colonies, usually on bluffs or islands. The nest may just be a scrape in the ground or a heap of debris with a depression in the middle. Sometimes it’s a large stick nest in a tree. They usually lay three white eggs that are incubated by both the male and female for about one month. Interestingly, they don’t SIT on their eggs to incubate them, they STAND and cover them with their webbed feet! Both parents feed the young, who leave their ground nests after about five weeks, tree nests a bit later. At nine to twelve weeks, the chicks take their first flight.

Another fun fact: pelicans are mouth breathers. Their nostrils are sealed beneath a thin, hard outer layer of their beaks. They do serve a purpose, though. They house the bird’s salt glands that remove excess salt from the bird’s system after they swallow saltwater.

The brown pelican is a conservation success story. The species was severely affected by persistent pesticides like DDT in the 1960s and ‘70s. These chemicals stayed in the environment and ended up in the fish pelicans ate, eventually concentrating in the birds’ fat and causing their eggshells to thin. When they incubated their eggs, the weakened shells cracked open and the chicks died before they were big enough to survive on their own. After we banned DDT and other such chemicals pelicans’ eggs became much stronger. Today the brown pelican is no longer endangered.

I hope you enjoy watching pelicans the next time you are at the shore or on the bluffs. Maybe you will even see one dive bomb from on high.

(Featured photo by Beverly Gates)

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