In the company of pelicans

On this quiet beach, where not much goes on except the rhythmic crashing of the surf, brown pelicans have captured my attention. They come out in droves at sunrise, largely vanish at around noon and might reappear a couple of hours before the sun sets.

With their huge beaks with a pouch underneath, tiny beady eyes, dull markings and boxy bodies–they weigh about five to ten pounds–pelicans look like manufacturing rejects. Certainly not runners-up in a bird beauty contest. They are difficult to admire until you pay closer attention.

A squadron of pelicans, out on patrol.

Think of swans, with their glistening white feathers, long and curvy necks and their aristocratic carriage. Several pieces of classical music celebrate their beauty but I can’t imagine what a ballet titled “Pelican Lake” would look like.

Or the scandalous color and plumage of flamingos, carrying on like the drag queens of the avian kingdom. Perched on their stilt legs they look down on everything and everyone around them

Brown pelicans, other other hand, are a dull shade of brown except for some white underneath their wings and bellies. On the top of their heads a few also have a blotch of white that looks like a bathing cap.

Floating on the water, and certainly walking on the ground, pelicans are anything but graceful.
On the water they bob rather than cruise, their long beaks tucked in. On land, they lumber on their stumpy legs.

Compare that to the comical little shore birds that spend their days tap dancing at the edge of the water, going just deep enough to catch some tiny crab while trying not to get their ankles wet.

But keep looking at pelicans and  soon they will soon beguile you, at first with their goofy appearance. Was God chuckling when he created such unlikely creatures?

Stew manning the Pelican Research Station.

On takeoff from the water, pelicans look uncertain and clumsy but that lasts only a few seconds. Once airborne, particularly as part of a flock, they are amazingly graceful, batting their wings for a couple of yards and then gliding for twice or three times that distance. They can fly on a V-formation or a single file, the latter resembling a silk ribbon undulating in a soft breeze. Often they will drop down to within inches of the water, looking for the small fish they devour all day long.

Indeed, their fishing technique is the pelicans’ most amazing feature. As they cruise fifty feet or so above the water, they will tilt their beaks down, or right or left, and then plunge with surgical precision to snatch some small fish. Their moves are as elegant as they are efficient, specially compared to gulls and other sea birds that flap around in circles and splash the water, almost doing a belly flop and sometimes coming away empty.

Shorebirds dancing by the water’s edge.

Pelicans will plunge almost vertically, wings extended back and finally flat against their bodies the few seconds before they puncture the water, much like an Olympic diver. From shore they seem to be pretty accurate too. They emerge almost instantly with a pouch full of water, about two or three gallons, and a frantically squirming fish trapped inside. With one swift motion the pelicans spit out the water and position the fish head first; sometimes you can see its tail sticking out from the beak. And down it goes, still squirming in the pelican’s gullet. Usually the pelican will float on the water for a couple of minutes and wiggle its tail contentedly before taking off on another fishing run.

Most impressive, I’ve seen pelicans diving and fishing for nearly an hour after sunset, when it’s almost dark. I can understand how owls with their huge eyes can hunt when it gets dark, but pelicans? With those tiny eyes?

I haven’t seen it but have read that pelicans are quite gregarious and live in large colonies. They mate for life and both males and females share parenting. A quite excellent bird despite its looks, if you asked me.

It’s almost five o’clock now and the sun is heading to its hiding place behind a rocky island on the horizon, and sure enough, a few hungry pelicans are starting to fly by, getting ready for their final meal of the day.

4 thoughts on “In the company of pelicans

  1. Ahh, the poetry of your writing takes me there to enjoy your view.I can relate to the way pelicans walk on land right now with stumpy legs…….and all the rest. Thanks for the beauty and chuckle of the morning.


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