Saturday, January 29, 2022

Plentiful Precocious Pelicans

The Reason for the Pelican
By John Ciardi
The reason for the pelican
Is difficult to see;
His beak is clearly larger
Than there’s any need to be.
It’s not to bail a boat with –
He doesn’t own a boat.
Yet everywhere he takes himself
He has that beak to tote.
It’s not to keep his wife in –
His wife has got one, too –
It’s not a scoop for eating soup,
It’s not an extra shoe.
It isn’t quite for anything.
And yet you realize,
It’s really quite a splendid beak
In quite a splendid size.
Brown pelicans are as much a part of the Florida landscape as palm trees and oranges, and not just because we borrow their names to help label streets, condos, restaurants, or other locations. Just the appearance of a pelican with its ungainly body, big feet, and huge bucket of a beak can make us smile. What is it, some kind of flying kangaroo?
As clumsy as these fellows look when they navigate their way along the beach like drunken scavengers, their ability to swim or take to the air, soar and glide overhead, seems contradictory and almost defies the imagination.
Although many of us may harbor the idea that the famous pelican poem was written by Ogden Nash, it was likely written around 1910 by Dixon Lanire Merritt, editor of Nashville’s paper The Tennessean:
A wonderful bird is a pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week;
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.
This very large water bird (family Pelecanidae) with its spectacular, long bill and large pouch is a frequent flyer in most Florida locations. Pelicans are essentially shore birds that can grow to 48 inches from head to tail and sport a seven-foot wingspan. They are fish-eaters with excellent eyesight, often swooping down from heights of up to 50 feet when they spy schools of small bait fish. Faster than the eye can see, the pelican is said to go through a series of Olympic athletic maneuvers when it dive-bombs for food:

“It partly closes its wings and curves its neck to draw its head back toward its shoulders. Just prior to hitting the water, the pelican goes through a number of quick contortions that are almost too quick for the eye to catch.

It folds back its wings and turns its body so it is actually upside down and at about a 70-degree angle as it enters the water. A split-second before striking the surface, the bird also extends its neck so the bill and its pouch are also upside down.

Impact automatically opens the pelican’s elastic pouch completely, filling it with water and (hopefully) fish. When a brown pelican pops back to the surface, the first thing it does is sit with its bill lowered so the water can drain out.
The pouch is not normally used for storing food since, once the water is eliminated, the bird raises its bill and gulps down the fish.”

Years of this kind of feeding eventually kills off older birds. Each time they contact the water, they further damage their eyes until they become blind and are no longer able to feed themselves.

The heads and necks of brown pelicans are white most of the year, but during the breeding season the heads become yellow and the sides of the head reddish-brown.

The female lays one clutch a year in March or April, of two – three eggs which incubate in about one month. The nests are usually found in mangrove trees in large colonies of up to several thousand birds. Both
parents incubate the eggs with their feet and take turns feeding the newborn chicks and keeping them warm as they emerge with no feathers, just a thin white fuzz. Truly only a parent pelican could love these prehistoric-looking plucked critters. After about five weeks the chicks head for flight school and independence.

According to Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Bureau of Wildlife Research which collects brown pelican data, the birds provide an excellent indicator of the health of the coastal environment as brown pelican nesting declines when mangroves are destroyed or their food supply is threatened.

Pelicans have been around, according to scientists, for 40 million years and are often seen at marinas and piers, begging food and scraps from returning fishermen, their heads following the hands of those cleaning fish like spectators at a tennis match. Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission, Bureau of Wildlife Research (FWC) always requests that no one feed pelicans for many reasons:

  • they can become dependent on handouts, won’t migrate south
    when necessary and can become ill from exposure to cold
  • Scraps from fisherman can contain large bones which can get
    stuck in their throats and choke or kill then
  • near docks and piers, pelicans can become entangled in fishing
    line or injured by hooks

Brown pelicans almost vanished from North America between the 1950s and early 1970s because of pesticide use. Run-off containing pesticides entered rivers and eventually the ocean, which then contaminated the fish pelicans fed on. While many died, pesticides also caused the surviving birds to lay thin-shelled eggs that often would be crushed under the weight of the parents incubating them.

The brown pelican was on the endangered species list in 1970. Following the ban on DDT in 1972, the reproduction rates of the pelicans significantly improved, according to FWC. As a result, pelicans were taken off the endangered species list in the southeast United States in 1985 and by the 1990s, pelican populations had returned to pre-DDT levels. The brown pelican is a success story for conservationists everywhere.

The next time that you are studying the horizon for a green flash, and you observe a graceful flock of pelicans winging their way back to a rookery at sunset, perhaps you will be reminded of the ways in which this hardy bird depends on us to aid in its survival.

Pelicans at sea
Giant cups with wings
Fish peek out each side

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