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Brown Pelican Notecard



Brown Pelican   (Pelicanus occidentalis)

You can’t help but smile watching a line of Brown Pelicans soar low along the crest of a wave in perfect unison, buoyed by the rising air of the surf. Found along ocean shores and bays, they stand four feet tall, with a wingspan of seven feet. The adults sport a yellowish head, but most notable is their long bill and expandable pouch. Gregarious year-round, they are often seen in large groups awkwardly preening or throwing their necks back, stretching their vital pouch to keep it pliable.

Brown Pelicans build their nests on rock cliffs or atop mangrove thickets. Monogamous for the breeding season, both sexes incubate and feed the young. They keep the eggs warm beneath their webbed feet. Adaptations allow for an extraordinary fishing technique: Their keen eyesight allows them to spot small fish underwater, then they make a steep dive from heights of 70 feet and enter the water with their bill first and their wings stretched back.

As they dive, at speeds up to 45 mph, they rotate to the left in a half twist to avoid injuring their trachea and esophagus. Special air sacs beneath their skin protect their internal organs and help them pop back up to the surface. The force of impact stuns small fish, enabling the bird to scoop up its prey in its throat pouch, which distends to hold three gallons of water! The pelican lifts its bill as the water drains before swallowing its well-earned meal.

Brown Pelicans are a living example of successful wildlife conservation.  Driven almost to extinction twice, by hunting, pesticides, and habitat loss, their numbers have stabilized with the help of the Endangered Species Act and the Environmental Protection Agency. Threats do still exist, including oil spills, discarded nets, and tackle, continued habitat loss, and overfishing.

Watch in wonder while they glide and dive. Or maybe you’ll find one sitting stately on the rail of a pier, catching your eye with their curious gaze. They remind us to rise above our trials and not sink under the weight of problems, to socialize with our fellows and feel the uplift of being in the flow.

Artwork by Pheobe Aceto

Text by Kara Jean Hagedorn