Brown Pelican: a Skimming, Soaring, Diving Treat for Coastal Birdwatchers
Posted by Greg on February 8, 2012
When Jody and I walk on beaches or piers, we’re often mesmerized by pelicans. They are amazing and graceful fliers. It’s so much fun to watch a formation of pelicans glide inches from the surface of the water or soar through the air. Occasionally you’ll see a pelican dive, and if you do, you know you’re seeing a Brown Pelican. The Brown Pelican is the only species of pelican that dives, from as high as 30 feet, into the water to catch its prey, and it features front-side internal air pouches to give it buoyancy and to cushion the impact of the water (like an inflatable life raft and air bags in one).
Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) are large coastal birds with a body that is from 39 to 54 inches long and with a wingspan up to 79 inches. Their diet consists of mid-sized fish. Although they do eat sardines and anchovies, most of their prey are “trash fish,” meaning fish that have little commercial value. Being a large bird, a pelican needs about 4 pounds of food per day. They may be expert fishermen, but Brown Pelicans are also opportunistic and adaptive. You’ll find them hanging out on piers and fishing boats to get scraps. The juvenile Brown Pelican, pictured above, was demonstrating this to us by perching near a number of fishermen on Venice Pier, California. He wasn’t afraid, although a bit leery, when Jody approached him with her camera. He seemed a bit of a ham, actually, and we would swear he was posing.
Pelicans, of course, are known for their large bills with the pouch hanging down. The bird’s bill actually can hold more than its stomach: a 3 gallon bill vs. a 1 gallon stomach, which makes sense considering that quite a lot of what pelicans catch when they dive is actually water. They need to float and drain the water off before they can swallow the fish whole. During that draining process, sea gulls commonly try to steal their catch. Gulls have been known to perch on the heads or shoulders of pelicans to raid their bills of the fish.
As for the areas where these birds can be found, according to The Smithsonian National Zoological Park, “Brown Pelicans breed from Anacapa Island, California south to Chile and from Maryland to Venezuela and Trinidad. After breeding, they may be seen as far north as British Columbia and Nova Scotia. They are the only species of pelican that is strictly marine in habitat, never found more than 20 miles out to sea or inland on fresh water. They prefer shallow inshore waters such as estuaries and bays.” There are five subspecies of the brown pelican. The United States is home to two subspecies. The California brown pelican (P. o. occidentalis californicus), is indigenous to the Southern California coast; and the eastern brown pelican (P. o. carolinensis), can be found on both the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts.
They’re quite a sight to see, whether inches from the water or higher in the air!
“A wonderful bird is the pelican, / His bill can hold more than his belican, / He can take in his beak, / Food enough for a week, / But I’m damned if I see how the helican.” (Dixon Merritt, circa 1910)