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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Pelicans at Pismo Beach Field Note

Published: February 6, 2018


By Mark Seth Lender


A Brown Pelican heads towards a safe roosting spot, out of view from the shore. (Photo: Mark Seth Lender)

Living on Earth's Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender muses on the unlikely grace of the pelican, and their surprisingly crafty nature.

Like all birds with giant wings, pelicans on a casual look seem out of place on the ground. Add to this, their fantastical appearance. Nothing fits anything else. Flight at a guess should be as unlikely for them as it is for turkeys. But if the latter are former creatures of the air devolving into creatures of the ground, brown pelican is moving the other way. Even on the beach they maintain a remarkable grace. Their movements are not just slow, but smooth, their balance easy when they rest on one leg to stretch the other all the way out behind them. Even the way they yawn has a softness to it. Then, watch them as they take off. They spread their wings, a few steps into the wind, and up, and away.

When they feed, it is another side of them all together. Breaking their aerodynamic shape results in a hard dive, precisely where they intend, then a bob to the surface again their bills full of fish, the water seining out.

Sometimes however, brown pelicans prefer a shortcut. And they have the smarts to do it. Guy Thériault of Parks Canada, tells me he’s seen them bedevil fishermen in a very creative way. On a visit to one of Florida’s offshore islands, he has seen a pelican feign an injured wing close to a man fishing. When the fisherman goes to investigate, a second pelican swoops in and steals the fish the man just caught. And the “injured” pelican? Gone. To play the prank on someone else.

Strategy, partnership, and planning a multi-staged deception are things birds are not supposed to be able to do.

So much for that.

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