I am enamored with pelicans. This is not the first fascination I have developed in recent years, but it is certainly unexpected and a delightful one. Very few birds attract attention like pelicans do. They soar high in the sky in flocks forming a near perfect “V” or a razor sharp straight line and then they abruptly dive straight down within a school of fish to scoop up their meal. I think they are are simply amazing.
LINK TO PELICAN ALBUM
My fascination with pelicans certainly does not come from a background with much interest in birds. My exposure to the feathered species was pretty much limited to childhood parakeets, a pair of peach-faced lovebirds I named Peaches and Herb (remember the pop singing group from the 70's and 80's) that were part of my office “decor," and the ever-present seagulls that inhabited the southern California beach environment where I grew up. The idea of belonging to a “Bird Watchers” group was beyond my comprehension or desire.
It was probably inevitable, however, that this fascination with pelicans developed since we both share much of the same environment on the Bay of Banderas in México where we now call home. Our local Brown pelicans have become a constant source of entertainment and fascination and I am happy to be able to introduce you to my feathered “amigos.” Here is a brief introduction to our local Brown pelicans which I hope you find as interesting as I do.
LET'S MEET THE BROWN PELICAN AKA PELECANUS OCCIDENTALIS
The Brown pelican is a permanent resident of the coastal marine environment from central North America southward to northern South America. Whether perched atop a piling, panhandling at a fishing pier, resting in the trees, or gliding above the surf, this conspicuous and popular seabird is instantly recognizable by its large body, long bill, and enormous gular (the large pouch located under the throat).
The Brown pelican is the smallest of the eight species of pelican although it is a large bird in nearly every other respect. The Brown pelican has a wingspan between 6 and 8 feet and weighs between 6 and 12 pounds. Like all pelicans, this species has a very large bill ranching in length of 11 to 13 inches with a pouch under its throat for draining water when it scoops out prey.
Pelicans are very gregarious birds and they live in flocks of both sexes throughout the year. They are exceptionally buoyant due to the internal air sacs beneath their skin and in their bones, and as graceful in the air as they are clumsy on land. In level flight pelicans fly in groups with their heads held back on their shoulders and the bills resting on their folded necks. They may fly in a "V", but usually in regular lines or single file, often low over the water's surface.
Webbing between all four toes on each foot makes the Brown pelican a strong swimmer, but an awkward walker. In flight, however, the species comes into its own. Long wings gracefully carry individuals to and from their fishing grounds, and flocks often fly in lines just above the water's surface, slowly rising and falling in a wavelike pattern. Fantastic fishers, Brown pelicans are noted for their spectacular head-first dives to trap unsuspecting fish in their expandable pouches.
Brown Pelicans are highly social and breed in colonies of up to several thousand pairs. They typically nest on small estuaries or offshore islands where they are free from disturbance and predation by terrestrial mammals, including humans. Pairs build nests on the ground or in trees, depending on the surface available. Brown pelicans incubate their eggs under their foot web and feed their small young “chicks” predigested fish that they regurgitate.
By three to four weeks of age the young chicks are large enough to swallow whole fish which they obtain by thrusting their bills into their parents' throats forcing them to disgorge. The young are able to fly and begin to fend for themselves by eleven to twelve weeks of age, but do not reach sexual maturity until three to five years of age. The Brown pelican is a long-lived species with the oldest individual on record dying at forty-three years of age.
SOME MORE COOL PELICAN FACTS
While the Brown Pelican is draining the water from its bill after a dive, gulls often try to steal the fish right out of its pouch sometimes while perching on the pelican's head. Pelicans themselves are also not above stealing fish as they follow fishing boats and hang around piers for handouts.
Pelicans incubate their eggs with the skin of their feet, essentially standing on the eggs to keep them warm. In the mid-twentieth century the pesticide DDT caused pelicans to lay thinner eggs that cracked under the weight of incubating parents. After nearly disappearing from North America in the 1960s and 1970s, Brown pelicans made a full comeback thanks to pesticide regulations.
The closely related Peruvian pelican lives along the Pacific Coast of South America from southern Ecuador to Chile. It is a little larger than a Brown pelican with fine white streaking on its underparts and a blue pouch in the breeding season. These two species are the only pelicans that plunge dive for their food.
During a dive the Brown Pelican tucks its head and rotates its body to the left. This maneuver is probably to cushion the trachea and esophagus which are found on the right side of the neck from the impact when they enter the water.
The male pelican selects a site on the ground or in an exposed treetop and performs head-swaying displays to attract a female. Ground sites are often covered with dense vegetation or surrounded by low shrubs. Pelicans prefer an area with nearby perches and enough open space for them to land, take off, preen, and loaf when not on the nest.
Ground nests range from depressions lined with grass to bulky structures of sticks, grass, and seaweed, while tree nests are usually well-built platforms of sticks lined with grass or leaves. The female builds the nest in 7–10 days as the male gathers progressively smaller sticks for her. The male brings new material for the female to add throughout incubation and he may rearrange the nest while inside. Nests measure up to 30 inches across and 9 inches high on the outside with an interior space up to 12 inches across and 4 inches deep.
The beautiful Los Arcos National Marine Park which is commonly referred to as "Los Arcos" (the arches) is located in the Bay of Banderas south of Puerto Vallarta and has been protected as a National Marine Park since 1984. These small beautiful granite islands include caves, deep tunnels, arches, and a striking reef. The local Brown pelicans are especially fond of this location which just goes to show that our pelicans know a good place when they see it!
Blue-footed boobies are also often seen near pelicans. The male booby has a smaller pupil and slightly lighter feet and is smaller in size than the female booby. Don't you love their colorful feet!
Pelicans usually forage during the day, but may feed at night during a full moon. The brown pelican is a plunge diver dropping from the air with its wings partly folded and dives into the water to catch its prey. It uses its bill and pouch like a net scooping up fish and water. It strains out the water from the sides of its bill, tips back its head, and then swallows the fish it caught.
Brown pelicans do not carry fish in their pouch. They only use the pouch to scoop up fish. Sometimes gulls will try to steal fish from the pelican's pouch. In fact, gulls may even perch on the pelican's head and wait for just the right moment to grab a fish. The Brown pelican eats menhaden, herring, mullet, smelt, anchovies and other fish. It also eats crustaceans.
When grown the Brown pelican has a brown and gray body and a white head with a light brown crown. Its neck is dark brown during breeding season. Males and females look the same. Young pelicans, however, are all brown until they mature. And finally, the pouch of the Brown pelican can hold close to three gallons of fish and water which is two to three times more than its stomach can hold. Wow!
MY LAST WORD ON MY BROWN PELICAN AMIGOS
Here on the Bay of Banderas in México it is very unlikely that you will not find an area where pelicans can be found. They are just about everywhere you look from perching on a fisherman’s boat, hanging out in a tree or on a dock, or floating in the water near the shore. Pelicans are truly special to me and I hope you have the opportunity to personally observe this remarkable species wherever and whenever you can. Until we meet again, wishing you happy trails and safe travels. Laura
LINK TO PELICAN ALBUM