Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 612-A   October 9, 1960
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Generations of college students have been fond of chanting a ribald ditty about "What a wonderful bird is a pelican. " That queer creature -- so grotesque and clumsy on land; so majestic and graceful in the air -- appears to be a survivor from prehistoric times, virtually unchanged. In addition to the huge pouch of skin underneath its long beak, a pelican has other strange features.

There is a permanent kink in its neck because one vertebra has no hinges, and on land, standing with the beak and pouch pressed against its breast, the bird appears 80 meek and melancholy that it is ludicrous. Another peculiarity, shared only by cormorants, gannets and the tropic bird, is that all four toes on each big flat foot are joined by webs. Ducks and geese have webs between the front toes but the rear toes are separate. Also unique are numerous air sacs in its bulky body, so that a pelican floats like a cork.

Two species are native in the United States. The white pelican, with a body about 5 feet long and a wingspread of from 8 to 10 feet, is one of the largest American birds. There is a broad black band of outer feathers on each wing. It can soar like an eagle and they seem to enjoy circling, high in the air, in flocks that frequently plunge almost vertically downward in dives that end with a sharp upturn and a thunderous roar.

When traveling, a flock forms a straight line or a V and they alternately flap and sail, all in unison. Their organized method of catching fish is equally remarkable. After gathering in a long line some distance out in a lake, a flock moves slowly shoreward, all beating the surface with their wings but maintaining perfect alignment until the fish, driven into shallow water, are scooped up and swallowed. At the nesting colony the young feed on partially digested fish disgorged into the pouches of their parents.

White pelicans, once abundant and widely distributed, now nest only on islands in remote and protected marshes of western Canada and our northwestern states. Occasionally a few stray eastward and have been seen soaring over our McGinnis Slough in autumn.

The brown pelican, with a wingspread of about 6 1/2 feet, is smaller but has a larger pouch. It is a semi-tropical bird rarely seen very far from salt water. The eastern variety is abundant along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts from South Carolina and Florida to Texas and thence to Brazil. The Pacific coast variety is abundant from central California to Chile. The general color of the body is dusky brown. The head is white and extending from it, during the breeding season, is a conspicuous white stripe on each side of the chestnut-brown neck. Later, after molting, the neck becomes entirely white.

Brown pelicans feed mostly on small fish of the herring family that occur in dense schools near the surface. When fishing, small groups commonly travel at 25 or 30 feet above the sea and glide long distances with only an occasional flap of their wings. When it sees fish, each bird dives under water with a great splash. Usually, as it emerges, noisy crowds of gulls and terns endeavor to steal its catch before the pouch can be drained of water and the fish swallowed.

The white pelican makes little or no attempt to build a nest but the brown ones build crude structures of sticks and debris on the ground or in scrubby trees such as mangroves. In a colony, hundreds or thousands of nests are densely crowded together. Two, sometimes three, eggs are laid in each and the young, when hatched, are completely naked caricatures of Big Bill, the Pelican.

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