A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!
~Dixon Lanier Merritt
American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) are always a treat to see. When I first moved to North Carolina over 30 years ago, the only place I ever saw them was an occasional one out on the Outer Banks. In the past decade or so they have become more predictable in winter at places like Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. On my recent Florida trip, I had seen a few fly over at Merritt Island NWR but was pleased to find a large flock roosting and feeding on the Click Ponds, part of the water reclamation complex in Viera.
I spent a couple of hours one day watching them as they flew in and out of the pond, rested, preened, and gracefully fed in their unique fashion. Unlike our more familiar Brown Pelican, which plunges headfirst into waters to capture fish, this species uses a graceful, almost ballet-like motion, to scoop up fish in shallow water. In very shallow water, they turn their head sideways, stretch out their neck with mouth agape, and plunge their bill into the water.
Here is a very short video clip showing their unique feeding behavior. They will often work cooperatively to herd fish and then plunge their beaks into the water to scoop up a meal.
And, in fact, a pelican’s bill can hold more than its belly – their large bill pouch can hold about 3 gallons of water, and their stomach only about a gallon! Pelicans have a great deal of control over their pouch – a set of tongue muscles controls movement of the pouch skin, so they can tighten it and expel water after scooping up fish. They can also cool themselves off by gular fluttering, a strange-looking flapping of the pouch skin that functions much like a dog panting. I have seen this on the young of Brown Pelicans in NC on a hot summer day when I helped band them with the Audubon Society over 25 years ago.
But the most amazing thing I saw these pelicans do with their pouch was what can only be described as pelican pouch yoga – a series of bizarre stretches and gapes. I saw several do this maneuver, one that they can do quickly, so I was only able to capture the sequence on one bird. They start by stretching the pouch over their breast, then stand up and point skyward and snap their bill while having the pouch wide open. Very strange indeed.
I guess this could be considered a part of their preening routine, something that these pelicans spent considerable time doing while I watched.
Pelicans kept flying in from a large group in the center of the pond to the group closer to the small area of open water near me, so I was able to watch their graceful wing beats and landing approach with feet down, skidding to a stop as they skated across the surface. With wing spans of 9 feet (second only to the California Condor amongst North American birds), they take up a lot of space as they glide in and take off.
Having watched these magnificent birds in Yellowstone, I was happy to have a chance to spend an afternoon in close proximity to appreciate their unique adaptations and interesting behaviors. I look forward to my next encounter.