The brown pelican, Pelecanus occidentalis,
is one seriously amazing bird. Native to coastal regions throughout the Western Hemisphere
, it glides effortlessly above the waters until spotting a fish
. Its stately flight then halts, as its trajectory alters almost instantaneously in a way no animal this large ought to be able to accomplish. The pelican's bulky body plunges headfirst in a kamikaze
dive straight for the water. But unlike the poorly trained, suicidal Japanese pilots of yore, the brown pelican can aim itself with uncanny precision, getting what it set out for more often than not. The bulging of the pouch underneath its bill after a successful plunge is unmistakable, as is the gulping motion as it tilts its head back to swallow its catch.
This is a big bird. Brown pelicans average about four feet in length and a fully extended wingspan of six or seven feet, weighing eight pounds or so. Males and females are similar in size and coloring. Adult birds have darkly colored bodies and white heads with a yellow spot on top, while juveniles are a more uniform brown. The brown pelican's bill has an enormous capacity, three times that of its stomach. Curiously, the fish is always swallowed head-first, and the pelican will perform some rather deft maneuvers to get it in this position if necessary. Buoyancy and ease of swimming are aided by an abundance of air sacs distributed beneath the birds' skin and throughout their bones; these adaptations may also help cushion the pelicans from the strains of repeatedly hitting water after fifty-foot dives.
The books will tell you that brown pelicans are "sociable" birds. Yeah, they gather in large groups, but they don't seem to be acting terribly sociable. Gulls will squawk at each other and fight for choice perch positions. Pelicans just sit there quietly and peacefully when they're not busy catching something. I often see large groups of the birds perched on piers and the concrete islands of bridge supports. Most often, they're all sitting there together, staring in one direction, as if attentively watching a baseball game.
The brown pelican, unlike its cousin the white pelican which sometimes ventures inland up rivers, restricts its habitation to saltwater shores. Native to Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts, it maintains year-round residence as far north as Virginia, and ranges up through much of the Canadian shore in summer. The pelicans nest most often on islands forested with mangrove trees and remain close to shore throughout their lives. They usually breed in early spring, the female laying two to four eggs, which are incubated by both parents for a month before hatching.The offspring are then fed partially-digested fish regurgitated by their parents, learning to fly on their own after about three months.
Once a very common species, the brown pelican was brought to near extinction in the 1950s and 1960s. Like many large birds of prey feeding on fish, brown pelicans ingested large amounts of the pesticide DDT, causing them to lay eggs with such thin shells that hatching often became impossible. The chemical was banned, and brown pelican populations have been increasing steadily since that time. The bird may soon be removed from the government's endangered species list.