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- 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 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’s 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.
- The oldest Brown Pelican on record was 43 years of age.
Brown Pelicans live year-round in estuaries and coastal marine habitats along both the east and west coasts. They breed between Maryland and Venezuela, and between southern California and southern Ecuador—often wandering farther north after breeding as far as British Columbia or New York. On the Atlantic and Gulf coasts they breed mostly on barrier islands, natural islands in estuaries, and islands made of refuse from dredging, but in Florida and southern Louisiana they primarily use mangrove islets. On the West Coast they breed on dry, rocky offshore islands. When not feeding or nesting, they rest on sandbars, pilings, jetties, breakwaters, mangrove islets, and offshore rocks.
Brown Pelicans mostly eat small fish that form schools near the surface of the water—including menhaden, mullet, anchovies, herring, and sailfin mollies. A foraging pelican spots a fish from the air and dives head-first from as high as 65 feet over the ocean, tucking and twisting to the left to protect its trachea and esophagus from the impact. As it plunges into the water, its throat pouch expands to trap the fish, filling with up to 2.6 gallons of water. Pelicans usually feed above estuaries and shallow ocean waters within 12 miles of shore, but sometimes venture over the deeper waters past the narrow continental shelf of the Pacific coast. They occasionally feed by sitting on the surface and seizing prey with their bills, like other pelican species, usually when a dense school of fish is close to the surface and the water is too shallow and muddy to plunge. They also steal food from other seabirds, scavenge dead animals, and eat invertebrates such as prawns.
Though they have an awkward gait on land, Brown Pelicans are strong swimmers and masterful fliers. They fly to and from their fishing grounds in V-formations or lines just above the water’s surface. They and the closely related Peruvian Pelican are the only pelican species to perform spectacular head-first dives (typically ending in a huge splash visible from far away) to trap fish. Pelicans usually forage during the day, but may feed at night during a full moon. Before swallowing their prey they drain the water from their pouches, while gulls or terns often try to steal fish right out of their beaks. Highly social all year, pelicans breed in colonies of up to several thousand pairs—usually on small islands where they are free from terrestrial predators. The male defends a nest site and nearby perches for up to 3 weeks until he attracts a mate, and the pair is monogamous throughout the breeding season. The parents incubate their eggs with their feet. If disturbed suddenly they fly hastily, sometimes crushing their eggs. Pelicans regurgitate predigested fish onto the nest floor for their nestlings, later switching to whole fish once the young are big enough. The young can fly and fend for themselves after 3 months, but take 3–5 years of age to reach sexual maturity.
For more information please visit allaboutbirds.org
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