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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

BirdNote® How Brown Pelicans Dive

Air Date: Week of

Evolution has helped these seabirds dive through water at just the right angle to efficiently capture their next meal. Mary McCann has this BirdNote® about the brown pelican.



GELLERMAN: We’re in debt to poet Dixon Lanier Merritt for this little ditty:
A wonderful bird is the 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.

GELLERMAN: And that's not the only thing to remark about this remarkable bird, as Mary McCann reveals in this week's BirdNote®.

A Brown Pelican fishing. (Photo: Tom Grey ©)


MCCANN: Imagine a line of Brown Pelicans flying just above the breaking surf of the coast. Perhaps you’ve watched - and heard - these large, long-billed birds fishing. They circle high, then dive head-first, plunging underwater to catch fish.


MCCANN: But doesn’t that hurt? Anyone who’s taken a belly flop off a diving board knows the powerful force of hitting the water. Several adaptations protect brown pelicans as they dive, sometimes from as high as 60 feet. Air sacs beneath the skin on their breasts act like cushions. Also, while diving, a pelican rotates its body ever so slightly to the left. This rotation helps avoid injury to the esophagus and trachea, which are located on the right side of the bird’s neck. Pelicans have also learned that a steep dive angle, between 60 and 90 degrees, reduces aiming errors caused by surface water refraction. We know that pelicans learn this behavior because adults are better marksmen than young birds.

A juvenile Brown Pelican. (Photo: Tom Grey ©)


MCCANN: Upon impact, the Brown Pelican opens its bill and expands its pouch, trapping small fish inside. Then the bird pops to the surface, spills out the water, and gulps down dinner.


GELLERMAN: That’s Mary McCann of BirdNote®. And for an eyeful of brown pelicans, dive into the photos on our website - LOE dot ORG.



Splash of the Brown Pelican Call provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by W.W.H. Gunn.

BirdNote® - How Pelicans Dive was written by Frances Wood.

See a video of Brown Pelicans Diving


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