The Pelican Brief

Posted by: Aamir

Dec 17th, 2006 • Category: Eye CandyTags: ,

“Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!
His bill holds more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week.
But I’m darned if I know how the helican.”

Dixon Lanier Merritt

There are eight species of pelicans in the world, all of which are similar in shape and are primarily white in colour (with the exception of the Brown Pelican). The pelicans featured in this post are the only white pelicans in North America and are called the American White Pelicans.

Pelicans are among the larger and heavier birds in the world, so they are very impressive in flight. Their bodies are mostly white, with black primaries and outer secondaries, which are hidden until the bird outstretches it’s enormous wings.

Their feet are short and orange, and are webbed not only between the four front toes but also between the second toe and the inwardly directed back toe. Adult pelicans have a bright yellow ring around each eye and juvenile pelicans appear washed out with brown colored streaks in their feathers.

The main characteristic feature of the pelican is the elongated bill with its massive yellowish saggy throat pouch connected to the lower mandible of the beak that stretches up to six inches. When it’s very hot pelicans flutter and jiggle their throat pouches to keep cool. The bill is 1-1.5 feet long and is larger in males than females. They weigh 8-15 pounds, are 5-6 feet long and have large wings with a wingspan of 6-9 feet. Males are larger than females.

These pelicans are very social and gregarious, and they usually stay together in large colonies to raise their young ones. Most of the time they can be seen swimming together in groups on feeding trips. These pelicans are found near lakes, salt bays, marshes, estuaries and beaches. They are commonly found in northern California, western Nevada, Utah, Colorado, northeastern South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota, and occasionally on the central coast of Texas.

Pelicans are naturally very large in size, but in spite of this they can sit high on the water because they have an extremely light skeleton, weighing less than 10% of their total body weight; their bones are full of air and the air sacs in their body are large. During mating season the male develops a fibrous plate on the upper part of the beak, this is a unique characteristic of the white pelican. Also the bill is bright orange during the mating season.

Fossils of pelicans go back 40 million years, so their feeding strategies have obviously been successful. Two basic types of feeding strategies are used by the pelicans:

Plunge Diving
The pelicans fly high in groups and drop from great heights into the water to catch its prey. They take a dip in the water, catch whatever they can in their bills and fly out of the water. As they fly out, they drain the water from their bills and retain the prey and gulp them down. This technique is commonly adopted by the Brown Pelican of North America and its close South American relative, the Peruvian Pelican. Unfortunately, i dont have any pictures of brown pelicans as they are a little hard to find here. I am still on their lookout and hopefully will find them at Point Reyes, the biggest birding site of North America.

ewww… they need to be potty trained.

Group Fishing
A flock of pelicans work together swimming in a line, driving fish into a concentrated mass using their bills and sometimes by beating their wings. The fish are herded into shallow waters or surrounded in ever decreasing circles and they are stuck with nowhere to go. This technique is commonly used by the various white pelicans of the world. This feeding technique is also used by the dolphins.

The pelicans will then stick their heads into the water and scoop up the fish with their enormous bills. The bill can hold 3 gallons of water, and after the fish have been caught the bill is pointed downward allowing the water to drain, and then the bill is raised and the meal is swallowed.

Pelicans mainly eat fish, but they are opportunistic feeders and eat a variety of aquatic animals including crustaceans, tadpoles and turtles. They readily accept ‘handouts’ from humans, and a number of unusual items have been recorded in their diet. During periods of starvation, pelicans have been reported capturing and eating seagulls and ducklings. The gulls are held under water and drowned before being eaten headfirst. Pelicans will also rob other birds of their prey. Have you ever seen a pelican eat a pigeon? Dont believe me? Click these links and see for yourself.
Pelican Eats Pigeon Video 1
Pelican Eats Pigeon Video 2

The most significant effect on white pelican populations is disturbance of their breeding sites, by humans or industrial activity. The birds may abandon an entire nesting colony, leaving eggs and young chicks to be trampled or exposed to harsh weather and predators. Oil or chemical spills, erosion, plant succession, hurricanes, storms, heavy tick infestations, and unpredictable food availability are other threats. Changing water levels due to drought, irrigation and recreational use may also cause the birds to abandon a colony, at least temporarily. The Brown Pelican is classified as an endangered species in many states of North America due to its receeding population.

Juvenile White American Pelican

U.S Fisheries and Wildlife Services has declared many marsh lands and water bodies all over the U.S as wildlife refuges dedicated to preserving and enhancing wildlife habitat, protecting migratory birds, protecting threatened and endangered species. A lot of these refuges are closed to the public to make sure some endangered species are left undisturbed. One such refuge closed to the public is the Farallon National Wildlife refuge located in the isolated Farallon islands which are 30 miles west of San Francisco.

These pelican pictures were taken at the Don Edwards National Wildlife Refuge. These birds are 100% wild and have no interaction with humans whatsoever. Taking these pictures was quite a challenge for me as these wild birds are not used to the presence of humans and fly away at the slightest movement and noise. After a lot of planning, patience, multiple visits and researching the pelicans, i was able to get them in their natural environment. Wildlife photography is fun and i will be posting more pictures of wildlife soon. I hope you enjoyed this post as much as i enjoyed shooting the pelicans.


Posted by: Aamir

Dec 17th, 2006 • Category: Eye CandyTags: ,
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  1. Arz000n
    December 17th, 2006 at 14:27:


    Those were some awesome pics of Pelicans…and a lot of kewl information about em too…


    Even the previous post on Lorikeets was amazing….I always dreamed of having em as pets…but then, dont wanna keep someone in cage too ….

  2. Sugarlips
    December 17th, 2006 at 17:16:


    My heart stuttered when I looked at the pics :)1st Lorikeets now Pelicans
    lovely lovely post 🙂 I heard about the food saving thing isn’t it amazing? Loved the pics of flocking birds 🙂

    Stay Beautiful…!

  3. samuru999
    December 17th, 2006 at 21:12:


    Another wonderful post from you Ari!
    Just beautiful!
    Incredible pictures of the pelicians!
    Great info too!
    You always make me smlie with your
    lovely posts!

    Thanks Ari!


  4. photowannabe
    December 18th, 2006 at 00:46:


    Awesome series Ari. Each photo is a winner in itself. I love the one of the pelican in flight over the seagulls.
    Have a great weekend and keep up the good work.

  5. starry nights
    December 18th, 2006 at 05:31:


    Loved all these pics of the pelicans especially of the one in flight and also the baby pelicans. cannot imagine the bill can hold that much of water.thanks for sharing these awesome pics and also all this info.

  6. picturejockey
    December 18th, 2006 at 08:11:


    Very very nice shots. Love all of them.

    December 18th, 2006 at 08:57:


    cada vez me sorprenden más y mejor estos reportajes, y tan bien documentados.
    La fotografías están secuenciadas de manera que pueden sugerir tiernos toques de humor, como es el caso de los pelícanos pescando.
    Están vivas. Estas fotografías están vivas, Ari.

  8. Reflex
    December 18th, 2006 at 10:51:


    I literally love your pelican pictures 😀 I enjoy the one taken in flight and the groups 🙂


  9. Suji
    December 18th, 2006 at 12:41:


    Great pictures as usual. You must ve really put in a lot of effort and research to get these amazing pics and all this information. Thanx for sharing.

    The previous post was awesome as well. Looking forward to ur wildlife series.

  10. hpy
    December 18th, 2006 at 14:53:


    You must know a lot about birds to take such good pictures.

  11. --Sunrise--
    December 18th, 2006 at 17:17:


    “Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!
    His bill holds more than his belican.
    He can take in his beak
    Enough food for a week.
    But I’m darned if I know how the helican.”

    Dixon Lanier Merritt

    HAH! Love this one…

    Ari (um, are you a he or a she? :S Sorry, not a clue!), every time I visit your blog, I find myself saying the same things… but the pics really are beautiful. Sigh.

    It must have taken a lot of patience and skill to capture them without any blurring, giving such crisp and clear photographs…

    Taking these pictures was quite a challenge for me as these wild birds are not used to the presence of humans and fly away at the slightest movement and noise. After a lot of planning, patience, multiple visits and researching the pelicans, i was able to get them in their natural environment. Wildlife photography is fun and i will be posting more pictures of wildlife soon. I hope you enjoyed this post as much as i enjoyed shooting the pelicans. – I did! I am not much of a wildlife ‘photographer’ (if I must attach a name to the thing I do… lol) – more of a ‘pretty views photographer’, but these – lovely!!

    Please keep them coming, lol… am glad I found a pretty photography blog! 🙂

  12. Aamir
    December 18th, 2006 at 21:52:


    Sunrise, its a he 😉

    Yes, it took a lot of patience. Birds are very active at sunrise as they scurry around for their breakfast. I decided to go there early one morning, but hadnt taken into account the rain from previous night. The trails were covered with slush and I was attacked by a million tiny marsh flies. They dont sting, but they get in your ears, eyes, nose, mouth and everywhere. ugggghhhh…. i was surrounded by them for 20 mins before i could run to my car.

    Another thing about the birds is to stay as far away as you can in order to get them to behave naturally. If you get closer, they would get scared and fly away. You need a really good telephoto lens to get them from far. The pictures you see are 100% crops.

    Im glad you liked them. Keep coming back, i have more 😉

  13. Chad Oneil
    December 19th, 2006 at 04:02:


    Wow, great series!

  14. mY lIfE
    December 19th, 2006 at 04:05:


    Really beautifull pictures :))

  15. Kimberley
    December 19th, 2006 at 05:04:


    Ari ….I know i have said this time and time again but your shots are awesomely great! I dont think I have ever seen a baby pelican…how cute and the first shot man is he flexible! These are just another example of your abundance of talent. VIVIDLY beautiful!

  16. Gangadhar
    December 19th, 2006 at 07:32:


    Great shots,Aamir..
    I think i’ve said it earlier..but wanna say it again..your blog allows us to view rare pics which we’re not able to watch in the real world..thanks for that.

    December 19th, 2006 at 08:45:


    Your spanish is best that my very poor English, but the images speak.

  18. Priyankari
    December 19th, 2006 at 10:13:


    Nice pics again!

  19. Nabeel
    December 21st, 2006 at 01:33:


    the pelican in flight pictures are awesome .. what great detail is found in your pics .. amazing. I love the title .. Pelican Brief as in the movie.

    Aww smooch for sugarlips

  20. Keshi
    December 21st, 2006 at 05:10:


    Pelican Keshi here..hows u matey?

    Have a safe and merry holiday season!


  21. Rauf
    December 23rd, 2006 at 04:54:


    What a coincidence Aamir, I have posted a couple of pelicans in my current post in a different context. I’ll post rest of the pelicans later, been pending for a long time. For the information I’ll send my readers to your blog. I am too lazy to write details. Or I’ll copy and paste.

    Lovely pictures here Aamir, beautiful atmosphere, its always a joy to see birds flying free. They don’t have any passport like me. But they can fly and I can’t.
    Here the birds do have interact with humans. They come pretty close
    Actually they were posing for me.
    ‘Hey man, you forgot to take my profile, what a cheap camera you got, go get a better one’

    I sincerely apologise for not visiting the blogs, things were chaotic, shifting to a new rented house, the pain of leaving my room, disconnecting the amplifiers and speakers took one full day. Still half the things are left there. have to discard many things as there is no room for them in the new house. It will take more than six months to move back to our house. I’ll be on the terrace when you and S visit me next. I preferred the terrace as I need more light.
    Lots of love and hugs to you and Sl

    I love Julia Roberts. saw the movie twice for her.

  22. hpy
    December 23rd, 2006 at 11:54:


    Merry Christmas

  23. Joel Reynolds
    December 24th, 2006 at 14:52:


    Great shots as usual, man. Hope you have a great Christmas.

  24. Ash
    December 25th, 2006 at 02:22:


    Merry Christmas to you!

  25. Laurent
    December 29th, 2006 at 10:05:


    Lovely pictures from Pelican.
    Thanks for the view.
    Take care


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