Wildlife: Pelicans

October 1, 2004
Filed under Feature Stories

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Many people’s knowledge of pelicans can be adequately summarized by the beginning of a poem written by Dixon Lanier Merritt in 1910: “What a wonderful bird is the pelican, his beak can hold more than his belican.” Despite the popularity of Merritt’s rhyme, it contains up to three errors, depending on how much literary slack you’re willing to cut him. First, a pelican stores its food in a throat pouch, not its beak. Second, pelicans don’t even have beaks; rather, they have bills. Finally, pelicans have far more fascinating qualities than their “beaks” and bellies.

With an enormous wingspan, and a bulky body that can weigh up to 20 pounds, American white pelicans are one of the largest birds on the continent. When thinking of big birds (other than the Sesame Street variety), bald eagles, blue herons and swans often come to mind. However, white pelicans regularly attain a wingspan that exceeds 9 feet — a good 2 feet longer than those of eagles, herons and swans. From black tip to tip, a mature white pelican’s wingspan is virtually the same length as the wingspan of a California condor.

The black tips and fringes of the white pelican’s wings — a characteristic it shares with several other species including white ibises, snow geese and whooping cranes — are plainly visible in flight but nearly invisible when perched or swimming. Based on coloration alone, a novice birdwatcher may mistake a pelican soaring overhead for one of these other species. However, the pelican’s short neck and stout body make it easy to distinguish from the more streamlined, long-necked species.

Although clumsy on land, a flock of white pelicans on the wing is a magnificently graceful sight, and can often be observed over lakes and rivers. Wheeling effortlessly in the air, their black and white bodies contrast beautifully with the blue sky. During migration, pelicans are regularly spotted flying in a V- or J-shaped formation that allows each bird to draft the one it follows, maximizing the efficiency of each slow, powerful beat of its wings.

Amazingly, the measured motion of the white pelican’s wings can propel it up to 300 miles in a single day, something the birds put to good use during migration. Most of them pass the summer in the north-central United States and central Canada, ranging to the northernmost reaches of Alberta and Saskatchewan. They winter in Southern California as well as some sunny inland states, down the coast of Mexico, and eastward along the Gulf of Mexico. Although young, nonbreeding birds may inhabit the winter range year-round, many breeding adults wing an annual migration that spans thousands of miles.

Even on their breeding grounds, white pelicans regularly make long-distance commutes. Adults have been documented foraging more than 150 miles from their nest, returning once a day or every other day to feed their hungry brood. Despite popular perception, adult birds only store food in throat pouches to nourish themselves. Until young pelicans can secure their own nutrition, they thrive on a fishy “baby food” that adult birds regurgitate from their stomachs, not their pouches.

In fact, the throat pouch of the white pelican serves its best purpose as a fishing net. When foraging, a pelican will plunge its throat pouch underwater to net small fish. Unlike brown pelicans that locate their catch by flying overhead and then diving headfirst into the water, white pelicans swim around on the surface in search of food. Once found, they use a dip-and-scoop motion to obtain a meal that may include crayfish or salamanders in addition to fish. White pelicans often forage in groups, forming a line and driving small fish into the shallows where they then encircle and scoop. If a minnow eludes one bird, it will likely wind up in the bill of another. This fishing tactic, peculiar to the white pelican, is one of the few instances of cooperative feeding among birds.

Sociability among pelicans doesn’t end at the dinner hour. White pelicans are also communal nesters, frequently forming large nesting groups, or “colonies,” that may include dozens of mated pairs. These colonies are generally found on low, bare islands on inland lakes and may be inhabited by other nesting waterbirds aside from pelicans. Pelican nests aren’t elaborate or artfully constructed. They usually consist of scratched-out depressions in the earth or sand, and may be lined with small pieces of wood or plant debris.

Under normal conditions, females lay two eggs that require about a month of incubation to hatch. Females and males take turns warming the nest, typically placing a webbed foot over each egg. Although both eggs generally produce chicks, often only the elder offspring survives. Harassment and injury from the older chick usually claims the life of the younger, making sibling rivalry within human families look a bit tame in comparison.

Juvenile pelicans are fed and tended by their parents for two or three weeks, after which time they wobble from the nest to join groups of other youngsters. Young pelicans develop the ability to fly at around 10 weeks — a much longer time than for many other birds.

Immature pelicans vary in their appearance from adults not only in size, but also in coloration. While mature pelicans are uniformly white with black feathers on the wings, juveniles exhibit a somewhat dusky appearance, especially in flight, and are slightly grayish on the head and neck.

During the breeding season, adults acquire some unusual physical characteristics. Their bills and feet take on a bright orange, almost reddish hue. A crest of feathers develops on the back of the head, and a fibrous growth that looks somewhat like a horn sprouts from the bill.

The intense coloration of the breeding white pelican’s bill is the source of its scientific name, pelecanus erythrorhynchos. Erythros is Greek for red, and rhynchos is the term for beak. This tongue-twisting string of letters that makes up the American white pelican’s scientific name essentially means “pelican with a red beak.”

Hold on a minute! Didn’t we already say that pelicans have bills, not beaks? Maybe the silly scientists were thinking of Merritt’s poem when they gave the white pelican its name.

In the interest of accuracy, I propose we teach children a new version of the rhyme: “What an outstanding avian specimen the pelican, his distensible gular pouch has greater capacity than its abdomen.” It rhymes, and is much more scientifically accurate. What do you think?

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