“Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican! His bill holds more than his belican. He can take in his beak enough food for a week. But I’m darned if I know how the helican.”– Dixon Lanier Merritt, Humorist, 1910
A few weeks back, we were down in the great state of Texas visiting family. My folks live well near the Gulf Coast—just about 20 minutes inland—and while there, we were sure to take multiple excursions out to Galveston Island.
One such excursion was a boat trip which ended up being far more of an adventure than intended after some boat trouble left us (my dad and I) having to paddle to a sea wall and tow the boat via rope along the edge like a real life American Ninja Warrior course until we were passed a boat willing to tow us back to our launching point. Mind you, it was incredibly hot, my wife was blasting Eye of the Tiger for “motivation”, and it probably felt more like ANW than it really was, but it was an unforgettable experience that I wouldn’t change for the world.
Before the boat trouble began, however, we were gifted with a graceful show in the sky, as brigades of Brown Pelicans soared up and down invisible sloping wind currents. If ever a scene were more worthy of Welcome to Jurassic Park as soundtrack as these prehistoric looking creatures, unflappable in the strong ocean winds—pun intended. In fact, a pelican is shown flying away from Isla Nublar at the end of the first film.
I mean—come on?!
Pelicans are a particularly fascinating and peculiar bird—a relic of sorts, having not changed much in the last 40 million years. To put that into context, they were around 30 million years before the first human ancestors. Not helpful? Well, let’s just say it’s been a very long time. Long ago, Pelicans reached an evolutionary optimum, becoming so well adapted to their environment and lifestyle that they simply haven’t needed to change much more. The United States as two species of Pelican which call it home: the American White Pelican and the Brown Pelican.
The American White Pelican, the only pelican we have back up here in Minnesota, doesn’t live here year round. In fact, only around 25 species of birds are year round Minnesotans. The White Pelican migrates here from the Gulf of Mexico every spring, and returns every winter. They’ll take this 1,500 mile flight, gliding much of the time with their 9 foot wingspan, twice a year, every year, for their entire 30 year lives.
The Brown Pelican, however, can be found on the Gulf Coast and others year round.
On the left is a Brown Pelican I photographed from the boat. On the right is the American White Pelican.
Of course, neither of these Pelicans are restricted to either Minnesota or the Texas Gulf Coast. There are a number of differences between the two, as well.
The Brown Pelican inhabits entirely coastal lands. On the east side, they range along the Atlantic Coast from Nova Scotia, down around Florida, along the Gulf of Mexico, down Central America, and southward to the great Amazon River. On the west side, they range along the Pacific Coast from British Columbia, around the Yucatan, down Central America, and southward to Chile.
Unlike the American White Pelican, the Brown Pelican is one of only two Pelican species that dives for its food–a spectacular sight. The Brown Pelican will soar 60 feet over the oceans surface where it can spot fish from above before entering a free dive, piercing the waters surface like a torpedo. The video below does a great job explaining how they survive their breakneck entry.
The American White Pelican has a far more extensive range. Some populations in central Mexico and on the Texas Gulf Coast remain there year round. Otherwise, many American White Pelicans spend their breeding portions of the year in the North. The northernmost colonies can be found in northern Alberta. As winter approaches, the pelicans begin a migration, either to southern California, along the Gulf of Mexico, or even down into Central America—depending on where the original breeding colony was located.
Aldo Leopold once wrote of their fall departure in The Sand County Almanac.
“Let a squadron of southbound pelicans but feel a lift of prairie breeze… and they sense at once that here is a landing in the geological past, a refuge from that most relentless of aggressors, the future. With queer antediluvian grunts they set wing, descending in majestic spirals to the welcoming wastes of a bygone age.”– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
But why make such a journey, why not spend your whole life on the Gulf like the Brown Pelican?
It can be confusing considering Pelicans are most strongly associated with the oceans in culture. There are Brown Pelicans which live on the American Coasts year round and never leave. On the coast, the appearance of White Pelicans in the winters doesn’t really surprise anyone. Is it that they are leaving “home” to go breed elsewhere, or is their journey south more equivalent to the winter migration of retirees to the Florida Keys?
It depends on how you look at it. Since home is where the heart is—where your family is—I’d personally consider the “Snow Bird” analogy as the most fitting considering the north is where they breed, nest, and raise young. Either way, the southern migration is an annual event to the delight of birders across the country.
In the springtime, White Pelicans begin their journey home, gliding on warm air currents with their long, strong, stable wings tipped in black. As they arrive, they begin regrouping in massive colonies. The largest colony in North America can be found on Marsh Lake in western Minnesota–one of two colonies in the state. The one on Marsh has nearly 17,000 nesting pairs of pelicans, or 34,000 individuals–or this many dots. ON JUST ONE LAKE.
When you congregate in numbers like that, there’s no doubt that pelicans are social birds. They fish together, fly together, nest together, you almost never see one alone. They even hang out with other species!
Cormorants are often found in pelican colonies along with herons and egrets. American White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants are most commonly seen together and they even sometimes forage together–though they mainly hunt different fish and at different depths. It’s though that Cormorants diving behavior helps to scare some fish towards the surface of the water where Pelicans are ready and waiting!
When it comes to nesting, Pelicans aren’t exactly picky. They prefer islands in the middle of lakes since they nest on the ground. Or maybe they nest on the ground because they nest on islands? Sort of a “chicken or the egg” question that someone has probably answered. (Also, lets just settle the chicken or the egg debate. Clearly the egg because the biological mechanism of the egg was around long before chickens.) Anyway, this makes it less likely that their nest will be scavenged by a predator.
Let’s say you’re a Pelican pair of future parents. You and your partner must set out on a search for the perfect piece of real estate in the colony. If you’re a pelican, the perfect place is a flat spot on the sand or gravel. You and your partner get to work, using your bills to rake up the surrounding dirt, reaching out beyond where the future border will be and pulling it inward to create a short wall. The resulting nest looks like a small crater, nearly 2 feet wide with a 6 inch rim. If vegetation or other materials are within reach from the center of the nest, they’ll find a place to use them, but otherwise the nest remains simply constructed. After all, once they start building, they don’t leave the boundaries of the nest to grab any supplies. For all my fellow millenials:
Then, the female will lay 2 eggs–just 2, one time per year. Laying so few is part of why their populations have a hard time at recovering after a large loss. She’ll incubate those eggs for 30 days.
Fun Fact: Strangely, American White Pelican embryos sometimes squawk before hatching. It’s thought that this is to express discomfort if conditions get too hot or cold. I for one think the whole idea of being cooped up in an egg for 30 days sounds unbearable. I’d be squawking too.
Pelican chicks aren’t like, say, ducklings which are pretty much good to go right after hatching–something termed precocial. Instead, Pelican chicks are what we call altricial, meaning they require parental care–like humans! By 1 to 2 weeks of age, the chicks begin to crawl. By 3 weeks they can walk with their body off the ground and can swim–sometimes around the inside of their parents pouch to practice fishing, which is just too cute. Older chicks move up to running, then running with flapping their wings, and by the age of 9 to 10 weeks, they can fly! This has got to be a relief for the parents who have had to provide 150 lbs of fish food to get them to this point. That’s
You see, when they can fly, that means they can begin to forage on their own, and that’s where we really get to start to see all of their amazing adaptations. Which brings us back to that old limerick: “Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican! His bill holds more than his belican. He can take in his beak enough food for a week. But I’m darned if I know how the helican.”
One line in that limerick particularly stands out, “His bill can hold more than his belican”, and we’ll come back to what exactly that means in a moment.
First up, the wings. Pelicans have wingspans of up to 10 feet. Their wings are broad and angled, perfect for gliding and riding air currents. You might not think that their coloration would have much to do with function, but the black tips contain high amounts of melanin which strengthens the wingtips, protecting them from the damaging sun and saltwater.
Their feet are webbed, of course, perfect for paddling at an easy-breezy trolling speed along the top of the water.
And then there is the bill. Such a fascinating appendage has spawned many stories, such as how pelicans reportedly use their pouches to collect rainwater, and how gulls sometimes sit on top of a pelican’s beak and reach in to swipe prey.
At nearly a foot and half long, the bill of a pelican is the longest of any bird. The bill’s main function, and probably what drove its evolution, is as a fish-catcher, but it has a multitude of other uses. From excreting excess salt by oozing out a highly saline solution to advertising its maturity and reproductive potential by growing a two-inch-high horn on top like a Rhino.
Another well-known quirk to the pelican’s beak is the pouch, capable of holding the liquid equivalent of two flushes of a toilet.
Contrary to what Finding Nemo might have you think, Pelicans don’t fly with water in their gular (pouch) which can hold 3 gallons of water—that’s 24 pounds!
Instead, they dip their bills into the water and quickly expand their pouch, creating suction which pulls water and fish in like a vacuum. Then, the pelican contracts its pouch, forcing the water out and the fish down the hatch.
Though the bill is rarely used in fights, the birds are not above jabbing at one another or getting into “fencing matches” during the breeding season.
The bill is highly sensitive, which in murky water or at night allows the pelican to fish by touch alone, useful when some pelicans have to catch four pounds of food daily. The beak is smooth along the edges, quite useless when trying to grab a slippery fish. All is not lost though, the pelican has a mean hook, called a mandibular nail, at the end of its beak, important in nabbing or killing prey. It is also used to preen and to intimidate predators, competitors, and overzealous ornithologists.
Back to the limerick. Now you know that a Pelican can hold 3-ish gallons (24 pounds) in its pouch. Well, the limerick is sort of correct in that a pelicans stomach can hold about a third of that—1 gallon (8 pounds). While a pelican can technically fit a substantial amount more, it can only fit so much in its stomach. A small amount extra can be stored in the esophagus for a time, but otherwise a Pelican doesn’t eat more than its stomach can physically can hold. Pelicans do not have a TARDIS for a stomach.
Because of their aquatic nature, Pelicans face a great many threats, especially when down south. Oil spills have potentially caused pelican declines and fishing gear such as hooks and nets are frequent enemies of these birds. It’s not just the hooks that can cause damage either, but the lead found in many fishing weights and lures—but there is hope.
Pelicans hit their lowest population levels in the mid-70’s but have since been on a slow and steady rise the past 40 years because of combined international effort to stop using DDT and by spreading awareness of the importance of wetlands and other crucial habitats
We are fortunate to have pelicans in our lives, soaring the skies like some sort of relic of a bygone era. In the immortal words of Nikki Minaj:
BirdLife International. 2016. Pelecanus erythrorhynchos. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22697611A93624242. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22697611A93624242.en. Downloaded on 07 July 2018.
BirdLife International. 2016. Pelecanus occidentalis. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T22733989A95071744. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2016-3.RLTS.T22733989A95071744.en. Downloaded on 07 July 2018.
Knopf, Fritz L. and Roger M. Evans. 2004. American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA
Sibley, D. A. (2016). The Sibley guide to birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, USA.