Brown Pelicans

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Michael Ellis has the background on a bird with a distinctive method of feeding itself that is making its annual visit here on its way north.

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His mouth can hold more than his belly can,
He can hold in his beak,
Enough food for a week!
I’m damned if I know how the hell he can!

By the way this poem is by Dixon Lanier Merritt not Ogden Nash, as usually assumed.

Brown pelicans are just now beginning to show up along the coast, flying north from the breeding grounds in Baja. So, food for week? Can they?

The pelican’s pouch, more properly the gular sac, has several different functions. The first and most obvious is to procure food. The brown pelican hunts by plunging into a school of fish from a few dozen feet in the air; the greatly distensible sac opens upon impact and about two and a half gallons of water and any fish nearby are immediately sucked in. The bird closes its beak, hanging its head down and letting the water drain out the sides, and then flips the beak up and swallows the fish. And apparently the bird’s beak can hold three times as much as its stomach, but I doubt if that one gulp will last it for a week. Nesting pelicans also carry partially digested fish in their pouch to feed their young. And finally, pelicans, like all birds, can’t sweat but dissipate heat by rapidly vibrating their throat sacs. This is called gular fluttering.

The other species of pelican we regularly see in the Bay Area is the American white pelican. But unlike the brown, these fish by floating along the surface, often in formation, and scooping small fish out of the water with their beaks and into their large gular sacs.

The brown pelican used to nest abundantly in the California but due to eggshell thinning from DDT and the collapse of sardine populations, they now mostly breed in Baja California, though small breeding colonies have appeared in the Channel Islands. The federal government removed the brown pelican from the Endangered Species Act, so it looks like we’ll get to watch those wonderful birds with their gular sacs gulping and a-fluttering for a very long time to come.

This is Michael Ellis with a Perspective.

Michael Ellis is a naturalist who leads trips throughout the world. He lives in Santa Rosa.