Pelicans: Pelecanidae

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PELICANS: Pelecanidae

BROWN PELICAN (Pelecanus occidentalis): SPECIES ACCOUNTS


There is nothing ordinary about pelicans. The enormous pouches under their long, hooked bills make them easy to recognize. In fact, the Australian pelican may have the longest bill of any bird. Pelicans are also among the heaviest flying birds in the world. They weigh as much as 33 pounds (15 kilograms), and their length is between 41 and 74 inches (105 and 188 centimeters) from the tip of their bills to the end of their tails. They also have long necks and webbed feet. Except for the brown pelican, most of the birds in the pelican family have white or light gray feathers with black wingtips.


Pelicans live on every continent except Antarctica. Brown pelicans live mostly along the coasts of North and South America. The other pelicans usually breed inland, and can be found on all continents except South America.


At breeding time, pelicans prefer nesting areas that are undisturbed, with water nearby where there are plenty of fish. Brown pelicans are the only true seabirds in the group, and they live along seacoasts. In general, the other pelicans breed near freshwater lakes and rivers, although they may spend some time in saltwater areas when they are not nesting.


Pelicans eat mainly fish, although they may occasionally take lizards, snakes, birds, small mammals, salamanders, and crayfish. Brown pelicans often catch fish by plunging into the water from the air, while other pelicans usually scoop up fish while swimming.


Pelicans float high on the water and raise their wings slightly as they float along. When they fly, their head is pulled back over their shoulders to form an S-curve. Groups of pelicans usually fly to their feeding places in a line.

Most pelicans breed in large colonies. Some build tree nests, and others nest on the ground. Female pelicans usually lay two or three eggs, and the adults take turns sitting on them. When they hatch, the chicks are naked and helpless, and often only one survives. The parents regurgitate (spit up) food into their big pouches for the chicks to eat until the young birds are on their own, usually at the age of three months.


Pelicans were tamed in ancient Egypt, and they were used as fishing helpers in India. Because they look so strange, there have been many myths, legends, and stories told about pelicans. They were also used as religious symbols for a mother's love.


Fifty years ago, pelicans were plentiful along the U.S. coasts. But by the early 1970s, the birds were completely wiped out in many places. Insect poisons used on farms and in forests had gotten into their food. One of the poisons killed the adult pelicans, and another one made their eggshells thin and weak. Instead of raising babies, the birds found their nests full of scrambled eggs. Without chicks being hatched, many pelican colonies disappeared. When people realized what was happening, they banned the use of the poisons. Now the pelicans are making such a good comeback that they are no longer listed as Endangered in Florida and Alabama, and they're doing much better in other states, too.


The spot-billed pelican is listed as Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction, and the Dalmatian pelican is close to being threatened. The brown pelican was once listed as Endangered in all of North and South America, but it was removed from the list for Florida and Alabama because it is doing better in those areas.

BROWN PELICAN (Pelecanus occidentalis): SPECIES ACCOUNTS

Physical characteristics: Brown pelicans are the smallest pelicans, the only dark-colored ones, and the only pelicans that are seabirds. They have gray-brown backs and black bellies, and most of the year they have a white or yellowish head and neck. But at breeding time, they get bright yellow heads, a yellow patch on the front of their necks, and dark feathers on the back of their necks. The pouches of the brown pelicans in western states turn from gray to red. The webbing between their toes makes these birds strong swimmers but awkward walkers. They are about 51 inches (129 centimeters) long from their bill tips to their tails, and they weigh about 8.2 pounds (3.7 kilograms).

Geographic range: Brown pelicans live on the seacoasts of North, Central, and South America. They can also be found along the coasts of Cuba and other West Indies islands.

Habitat: Brown pelicans stay close to the ocean year round and nest on islands. They live along the coast and also in estuaries (wet areas near the ocean where saltwater and freshwater mix).

Diet: Brown pelicans are famous for their spectacular headfirst dives from as high as 65 feet (20 meters) in the air. They scoop up fish in their huge pouches. After making a catch, they drain the water out of their pouches before swallowing the fish. They occasionally catch fish while sitting on the water.

Behavior and reproduction: Brown pelican usually form flocks year round, and they nest in large colonies. They nest on small islands or the sides of cliffs, either in trees or on the ground. The females usually lay three eggs, and the parents take turns keeping them warm for about a month. When the naked chicks hatch, they soon start screaming to be fed. The parents feed them regurgitated food from their pouches. Young brown pelicans can fly and feed themselves by the time they are eleven weeks old.

Brown pelicans and people: People love to watch brown pelicans in action, and they are often the main characters in children's stories and poems. Despite the popularity of the birds, people in the United States almost killed them off in many states with poisons intended for insects. The birds are sometimes injured by swallowing fishhooks and getting tangled in fishing lines. In South America, people gather their droppings to use as fertilizer on farms.

Conservation status: Although all brown pelicans were once listed as Endangered, the birds that live in Florida and Alabama have made a such a good comeback that they are no longer on the list. ∎


Physical characteristics: The American white pelican, with its big wings and immense bill, is one of the largest waterbirds in the world. These pelicans are mostly white with yellow-gray crests and black wingtips. During breeding season, both male and female develop a knob on their orange bills. The birds are about 62 inches (157 centimeters) long and weigh an average of about 16.4 pounds (7.4 kilograms).

Geographic range: American white pelicans live mostly in the western and southern parts of North America from Canada to Mexico.

Habitat: In spring, American white pelicans breed mainly on islands in freshwater lakes. They often feed in marshes, rivers, and shallow lakes that are as far as 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the nesting colony. Most of them migrate to warm seashores in fall.

Diet: Flocks of American white pelicans often fish together. They usually sit on the water and dip their bills in to catch fish. They occasionally also eat crayfish and salamanders.

Behavior and reproduction: Despite being large, heavy birds, flocks of American white pelicans often soar very high. Their courtship usually starts with dozens of birds flying over a nesting area. The females generally lay two eggs in nests on the ground, and the parents take turns sitting on the eggs for about a month. The chicks walk away from their nests long before they can fly. They gather in noisy bunches, while their parents fly back and forth with food. The parents regurgitate food and the young pelicans eat from their pouches. At about three months, the young birds are on their own.

American white pelicans and people: American white pelicans do not like to have people near their nesting colonies, and they may desert their nests if people come near. Motorboats and low-flying airplanes also disturb them. Although the pelicans usually eat the kinds of fish that people don't want, sometimes people shoot them because they think the birds are stealing valuable fish.

Conservation status: American white pelicans are not listed as threatened. Their numbers were going down for most of the last century. But people have been doing a better job of protecting them in recent years, and the birds have started several new breeding colonies. ∎



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