Peculiar and Precious: The Pelican
Pelicans are hard to describe — if for no other reason than what makes them unique: their long, pointed bills, which often stretch out 12 inches. With their sack-like bills, they capture fish, by diving into the water head-first and emerging with a bill full of food and water. Pelicans swallow the food whole after discarding the water. Brown pelicans sometimes look especially strange, as they tilt their heads back and stretch their pouches over their throats.
Pelicans, lovely and strange simultaneously, look prehistoric — as though they, with their seven-foot wing-spans, might have existed alongside dinosaurs millions of years ago. They bear no relationship to the pterodactyls they resemble. Pterodactyls never developed feathers; they were more like bats. Yet the fossil record suggests pelicans have existed for 30-40 million years — which explains their unique, ancient appearance.
Today, there are eight species of pelicans. In the United States, there are two: the eastern pelican and the California brown. Pelicans exist on all continents except Antarctica.
Peter Wallerstein, a marine mammal specialist who directs Friends of Animals’ Marine Animal Rescue project, encounters pelicans regularly along the coast of California, and rejoices: “I see California brown pelicans every day in nature — just living their lives. It’s positively breath-taking to see them flying in formation over the water. They are such majestic, interesting birds.”
In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s DDT and other poisonous chemicals were routinely dumped into the water on the coast of California — and almost caused the extinction of the regions pelicans. The toxic chemicals killed their eggs, and pelicans were placed on the Endangered Species List in 1970. Environmental preservation efforts and recovery measures led to the pelicans’ de-listing in 2009.
Like nearly every animal who lives in close proximity with humans, a pelican faces conflicts from our side. Anglers vie with them for fish. Wallerstein receives about 50 calls per year involving pelicans trapped in lines or swallowing bait — attached to hooks.
“Not too long ago,” says Peter, “I received a call about a pelican tangled in a fishing line way out in the water, and when I got there, there were five of them — drowning. As one would try to escape, this would cause the others to become submerged under the water. It was a horrible sight, but we got there just in time to save all of them.”
Pelicans are also subject to domoic acid poisoning — a neurotoxin spread by red algal blooms. The toxin can bio-accumulate in fish that pelicans routinely dine on. The results are the same as with sea lions (or even humans) suffering from the affliction: seizures, memory loss, brain damage and sometimes even death.
Most calls involving pelicans landing in strange places, at strange times, involve domoic acid poisoning. The pelicans become so disoriented that they land immediately, regardless of where they are.
One of the strangest calls Peter Wallerstein ever received was from a Brazilian tourist who reported that a pelican had abruptly fallen on his head:
“This tourist was dumbfounded by the experience,” recalls Wallerstein, who rescued the bird.
“He was just walking along the beach and pelican dropped from the sky on his head! The pelican was suffering from domoic acid poisoning and likely had a seizure in the sky and was forced to land fast. This guy saved the pelican’s life by breaking the fall.”
There are, I’m glad to say, more opportunities to witness pelicans thriving, and their often humorous interactions with other birds. Sea gulls, for instance, are known to land on the heads of pelicans, where they attempt to steal the fish right out of the bills of pelicans who are emptying them of water (a process that takes about a minute). Pelicans are known to return the favor on occasion.
Pelicans live and nest in colonies, and they nest close to other pelicans. Their nests vary from simple to elaborate, depending on what’s available. They mainly live on rocky beaches, offshore islands, harbors, marinas and estuaries. An adult pelican eats around four pounds of fish per day. Most of the pelicans’ time is spent at sea.
Peter Wallerstein appreciates all the animals he helps, and considers himself infinitely fortunate to do this work. “All free-living animals are infinitely interesting, but pelicans, flying gracefully in formation within inches of the water, really are special.”
Next time you see a pelican, pay attention; you never know what you’ll see.