Reasons to Love Brown Pelicans

I’m a pelican person. Growing up in Alberta, we had the gigantic white pelicans soaring overhead like small aircraft and pulling suckers out of the prairie lakes. I have photographed the adorable little pelicans of Sri Lanka, and the wondrous black and white pelicans of Australia.

But today I want to pay tribute to the beautiful brown pelican—the Olympic diver of the family.

Wow can they dive.

Of all the pelican clan, this is the one that has made its career by patrolling the warm waters of the Americas in precise squadrons in search of fish to dive for. One by one, when they spot something swimming in the water, they’ll peel out of formation and rocket downward into the ocean. It’s spectacular.

Brown pelican diving

Brown pelicans have airbags.

Brown pelicans, like their close relatives the boobies, have air pockets in their upper bodies, a bit like the airbags in your car. Just before they crash face-first into the briny deep, they inflate the air pockets and cushion the blow. Safety first.

Brown pelican perching and stretching

Pelicans are precise.

If you’ve ever watched Olympic diving on the tube, you know that they earn their points with a clean dive: straight into the water with a minimum of splashiness (that’s a technical term). Pelicans are the same: somehow they know that they need a dive angle between 60 and 90 degrees to get maximum power with minimal risk of injury.

Brown pelican in flight

Pelicans are built for business.

If you ever get the chance to watch one of these beauties dive (and they can be quite obliging about practicing their craft right in front of you as you sip cocktails on the beach) you might see them turn their head slightly to the left just before they hit the water. That’s because a brown pelican’s esophagus and trachea (the food and wind pipes) are fused to the right side of the neck. The quick head-turn helps protect the important gear from harm.

That pelican pouch, though.

The throat pouch is really the essence of pelican-ness: what would they be without it? It can hold up to 11 litres (about 3 gallons) of water along with, hopefully, a big ol’ fish. Brown pelicans tend to specialize in small forage fish (sardines and their ilk), but just in case they get lucky and land a whopper, that pouch is up to the task. Watch them surface from a dive, carefully drain the water through the sides of the beak, and swallow the good stuff. Here’s a sequence of a pelican in Aruba stretching that pouch out, presumably to keep it nice and elastic.

Brown pelicans are survivors.

If you get a chance to spend time on the warmer coastlines of the Americas (and by warmer I mean anywhere south of British Columbia, though we do get the odd stray one up here), you’ll have a good chance of spotting these beautiful big birds.

But it wasn’t always the case. In the 20th century, brown pelicans were hit hard by the ravages of DDT and other pesticides—to the point where their survival was in question. These pesticides thinned the eggshells to the point that the parent would break the eggs just by gently incubating them. By 1972 the brown pelican was an endangered species, and, sadly, the state bird of Louisiana was extirpated (gone) from that state.

Brown pelican in flight

Shortly after that, legislation for the protection of endangered species came into force, and DDT was banned (though it persists in the coastal environment for an alarmingly long time.) That bit of protection was all the brown pelican needed: its numbers bounced back quickly.

Hopefully we’ll have them enhancing our coastlines for generations to come.

Beach scene Aruba with sailboard and pelicans

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4 thoughts on “Reasons to Love Brown Pelicans”

  1. The brown pelicans are a delight to watch in Baja California. While gliding from the lagoon to the ocean, I see them occasionally point their bills downward and back up, sometimes also jiggling their feet. It looks like a gulp and a shudder. Do you know why they do that?


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