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
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
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.
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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Update: June 2012