Window on Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
A popular limerick titled “The Pelican,” which most agree originally was penned by Dixon Lanier Merritt, begins “A wonderful bird is the pelican. His bill will hold more than his belican…”
We had just begun our years of full-time travel when we spotted our first real, live pelican. After setting up camp at California’s Jalama Beach, we were strolling along the Pacific shoreline, unwinding from a long day. Suddenly a half-dozen enormous birds came into view “” flapping with slow, deep strokes just a few feet above the ocean. Our pleasure-meters jumped higher each time a pelican spotted a fish and, with wings pulled in tight and neck extended, dove into the water, emerging seconds later with dinner.
Another day we watched a group of high-flying pelicans flapping in slow motion into the wind. As they drew near, we noticed that they were lined up, single file, straight as a ruler. It was an awesome sight “” enough to transform us from casual, see-the-pretty-bird people into lifelong bird lovers.
Later, we found more pelicans farther up the coast. Until that time, pelicans had seemed like cartoon birds with odd behavior, but in the sky they are truly noble. And when a brown pelican dives, wow! (Only the brown pelican dives for its dinner.)
Two pelican species live and breed in the United States, brown and white. The white pelican is larger, with a wingspan to match that of the California condor “” 9 feet from wing tip to wing tip. Seen on the ground, a white pelican’s feathers appear to be pure white, in stark contrast to its bright orange bill and feet. But white isn’t the only feather color “” see a white pelican aloft, and you’ll discover that the underside of its wings have nearly as many black feathers as white.
Brown pelicans look, and are, considerably smaller than their white cousins. A brown’s wingspan is only 7 feet, about equal to that of a bald eagle. What’s more, it’s a real stretch to even call this species “brown,” given its grayish-brown body, grayish-brown wings, and white neck and head. Still, identification is easy “” whenever you see a pelican that isn’t mostly white, it’s a brown.
Whatever their color, pelicans feed mainly on fish. To find their prey, they come equipped with extremely keen eyesight. You may have been lucky enough to spot a pelican flying over the ocean as much as 60 or even 70 feet in the air. Even at that height, they’re able to spot a school of small fish. Their next job is to get down, and get busy.
Brown pelicans match their dive to the depth of the fish they’re chasing. They’re smart enough to dive deeply underwater to catch a larger fish, or to merely land on the ocean surface, reach down, and shovel in several small ones. It depends upon the size and depth of the fish they spotted from above. The white pelican catches its dinner while swimming.
When a brown pelican starts to dive, you can’t see the bird’s huge pouch. It’s kept tucked tightly under the bill until needed. But that pouch sure comes in handy, allowing the bird to surface with more than a single fish. Of course, the seawater needs time to drain out of the pouch before the pelican can swallow its catch. We couldn’t have imagined that we would witness such an event firsthand “” not once, but multiple times.
And where can you see pelicans performing this amazing routine? Brown pelicans are found year-round (somewhere) on coastal salt grass flats from Virginia south to Florida and around the Gulf Coast. At one time they were so common in Louisiana that they were designated as the state bird. On the Pacific coastline, one is most likely to see browns from the San Francisco Bay area south into Mexico.
White pelicans appear in pretty much the same states as browns in the winter. They summer farther inland, and much farther north, hanging out in marshy, inland lakes, as well as in coastal lagoons and bays.
We haven’t seen these birds in all these states, but we have seen pelicans on the coastline from southern Oregon to Southern California, plus South Carolina and Florida. A white pelican didn’t come within binocular range while we were traveling along the eastern coastline, but we were astonished to see them in New Mexico, Nebraska, and west to Wyoming. Obviously, those sightings were during summer and migration.
Pelicans, brown or white, have few natural enemies. They nest on the ground in large colonies, and, yes, their nests are occasionally destroyed by hurricanes, flooding, or other natural disasters. But the greatest threat to their well-being results from pesticides, such as DDT. When DDT use increased early in the previous century, pelican populations plummeted.
But there’s good news “” in 1970 the brown pelican was listed as endangered in the United States. Two years later the use of DDT was banned, and gradually pelican numbers increased. As the level of chemical contaminants in pelican eggs decreased, more chicks survived. By 1985 brown pelican populations along the Atlantic Coast had recovered to the point where they could be taken off the endangered species list, at least in that area. The brown pelican is still considered endangered along the Gulf and Pacific coasts, and down into Central and South America.
Pelicans are relatively easy to find now throughout much of their previous habitat in the United States. So, where do you look for them? On the coast, especially on a somewhat rocky to very rocky coastline. And keep your eyes open, because they sometimes show up in unusual places. Down in Florida some browns make their living begging fish from fishermen at the local piers.
Just last week we got an e-mail from Kaye’s sister-in-law, Jane, who lives in Southern California. She was eating lunch at an outdoor restaurant on the pier, watching the waves roll up right under the deck. She wrote, “There was a pelican on the pier that just sat there and let everyone look at him!” Jane’s excitement was clear. We’ve had that same experience. On hearing about that incident, Lowell’s brother piped up, “The only two birds I can identify down here in San Clemente are seagulls and pelicans.” (Must be tough living on the beach!)
One more story. You wouldn’t expect to see pelicans in the Arizona desert, but they show up occasionally. The small city of Yuma, down on the Mexican border, has begun to see them nearly every year. These pelicans are juveniles, probably born on Pelican Island in the Sea of Cortez. Obviously, Yuma can’t offer a coastline habitat, but the pelicans don’t complain. Lacking a lot of water, they settle for ponds or canals. Lacking that, streets and parking lots will do.
Kaye even saw several pelicans flying just west of Tucson, Arizona. The avian specialist at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum laughed, and said, “They sometimes fly a lot farther than just to Yuma!” It was a terrific feeling to add the brown pelican to her Arizona life list.