PELICANS Pelecanidae "Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!
His bill holds more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week.
But I'm darned if I know how the helican."

Dixon Lanier Merritt

The pelicans are indeed famous for their beaks, which they fill with huge gulps of water, strain out the liquid, and eat the remaining fish or squid. These Brown Pelicans (left or above) are following a boat on Monterey Bay, hoping for scraps.

And speaking of beaks, the Australian Pelican (right) is said to own the longest beak of any bird in the world. Pelicans are a very distinct group (all 8 species belong to a single genus), and there remains debate about which other birds are their closest relatives. Fossils of pelicans go back 40 million years (Elliott 1992), so their feeding strategies have obviously been successful. However, two basic types of strategies are used: plunge-diving (used by the Brown Pelican of North America and its close relative along the western South American coast, the Peruvian Pelican Pelecanus thagus) and group fishing (used by the various white pelicans of the world). A group of American White Pelicans (below top), for example, will form a line to chase schools of small fish into the shallows, and then scoop them up liberally. Adults have the odd bill protuberances in the breeding season, while younger birds do not.

Pelicans are among the larger and heavier birds in the world, so they are very impressive in flight. The various white pelicans, like the Eastern White Pelican (left) of Eurasia, often show striking contrasts between white bodies and black remiges (although this younger bird is still washed with brownish). Two of the world's pelicans -- Dalmation P. crispus and Spot-billed P. philippensis -- are endangered by loss of habitat in southern Eurasia and southeast Asia, respectively. Breeding colonies of all species require protected islets away from predators.

The Brown Pelican was heavily impacted by DDT in the 1950s and '60s, and breeding populations plummeted. It once nest north along the Pacific coast of California to my home county (Monterey Co.; Baldridge 1973) but the colony at Pt. Lobos disappeared in the early 1950s. They have made a great comeback throughout their range since DDT was banned, and today pelicans are common in Monterey Bay, often remaining year-round. Breeders may recolonize here in the future.

Photos: The boat-following Brown Pelicans Pelecanus occidentalis were on Monterey Bay, California, on 5 Dec 1987. The Australian Pelicans P. conspicillatus were along the Esplanade at Cairns, Queensland, Australia, in Nov 1983. The American White Pelicans P. erythrorhynchos were in Moss Landing harbor on 25 Aug 2001, the only time such a flock has ever been documented feeding there. The immature Eastern White Pelican P. onocrotalus was at the Huleh Reserve, Israel, on 26 Oct 1981. Photos © D. Roberson.

Bibliographic note:

There is no "family book" per se of which I'm aware (there are numerous coffee-table "survey" books that include pelicans along with other seabirds or marsh birds), but an excellent introduction to the family, with incredible photos, is in Elliott (1992).

Literature cited:

Baldridge, A. 1973. The status of the Brown Pelican in the Monterey region of California: past and present. Western Birds 4: 93-100.

Elliott, A.. 1992. Family Pelecanidae (Pelicans) in del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., & Sargatal, J., eds. Handbook of the Birds of the World. Vol. 1. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.



Page created 17 Mar 1999, updated 24 Apr 2002