As anyone familiar with these pages will already know, one of my favorite things is Pelikan fountain pens. But there is another pelican I am also fascinated with, and that’s the one with wings that eats fish. I have wanted for the past week or so to write something about these birds, because they have become a daily sight and one of the quiet pleasures about my new life on the Atlantic coast. Stepping outside these days, I inevitably turn an eye to the passing, or feeding brown pelicans that have become my avian neighbors.
Somewhat clumsy and awkward on land, these large birds are in flight, the picture of grace and beauty, often reminding one of a corps de ballet in the precision of their movement. Four to five foot long birds, weighing as much as ten pounds, they are masters of the wind and it is a prodigious sight to see a flock of nine pelicans flying in a straight line six inches above the surface of the ocean.
The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) is the smallest of the seven pelican species, and is common to the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of North and South America. They congregate in large flocks and are social and gregarious. Long-lived, some tagged pelicans have been found to be as much as thirty years old.
The head is white with a pale yellow crown, and the long neck is chestnut and white. The main body is brown streaked. Bill and pouch are gray and can hold three times as much as the bird’s stomach. There is an old limerick by Dixon Lanier Merriot that reads, ‘A wonderful bird is the pelican; his bill can hold more than his belican.’
The pelican flies with his neck folded and the head resting on the back, with slow, powerful wing beats. They have keen eyesight and can spot fish from as high as seventy feet over the water. Air sacs beneath the skin cushion the impact of their kamikaze-like dives when feeding. They eat up to four pounds of fish a day. An interesting thing about the pelican’s pouch is that it serves as a cooling mechanism one minute, and a feeding trough for the pelican chicks the next. Parents care for the young three months, and first flight comes about seventy-five days after birth.
I have never found it documented, but a story I heard from a local man who has observed them all his life, says that these birds have an unfortunate manner of death. The story goes that the pelicans gradually go blind from the daily pounding their eyes take in the repeated dives for food. Unable to see to find fish, they starve to death.
The mystery to me is why over the course of thousands of years the eyes have not evolved a protective feature of some kind. Isn’t that the very nature of evolution?
Here’s the complete Merriot limerick, written in 1910…
A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill will hold more than his belican,
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican!