Pelicans- Amazing Dive Bombers of the Sea

Whenever I walk along the beach with a friend of mine, she always comments on how amazing those large birds with the huge throat pouches are dive-bombing into the water. I always agree with her, but in all honesty, I had never really taken the time to consider the significance and value of pelicans. To me, these common sea birds blend in so well with the coastal scenery that I hardly notice them at all. I've become accustomed to watching pelicans plunge into the water in search of fish or linger in clusters around the docks in hopes of scavenging fish scraps. Yet, I've learned that like any other animal that inhabits the coastal zone, pelicans do occupy an important niche in the ecosystem and have an equally interesting biological history.

Famous for a long flat bill and expandable pouch, pelicans appear to be large and awkward birds. Despite their appearance, these birds are strong fliers and go on long migrations, wintering in coastal marine areas and moving inland to rivers during the summer months. Of the six species of pelicans found throughout the world, the brown pelican is the most common to Belize. This species is characterized by webbed feet, a dark body, a gold neck with a silver stripe, and a wingspan that can reach up to 6 feet. Their throat pouch is very thin and can hold up to three times more food than their stomach. This comes in handy when this skilled predator hunts for food. By diving from heights of up to 60 feet, a pelican plunges into the water headfirst and comes to the surface with its bill full of fish. Using a technique of tilting its head back, all the water is drained out of the pouch and it swallows its prey, almost always fish and small crustaceans, whole.

Reef Brief is a weekly column published in the San Pedro Sun
Aside from feeding, reproduction rates high on the pelican's list of priorities. Once a year mating occurs, which involves the ritual of the male dancing around the female, lifting his wings and tilting his head back. It is also during this time that the throat pouch of this bird changes from yellow to a greenish hue, presumably to attract mates. Upon choosing her mate, the female selects a site to build a nest (usually in mangroves) while the male collects all the necessary materials. After the female lays her typical three eggs, both the female and male share the duty of incubating the eggs for 28-30 days. After the eggs hatch, the parents again share the responsibility of feeding the young for up to 12 weeks.

Despite a population that is now relatively healthy, brown pelicans were once considered endangered throughout the world. In the early part of the 20th century, pelicans were hunted for their feathers, which were used to decorate hats and garments. And at one time, fishermen hunted pelicans because they believed they were competing with the sea birds for fish. No doubt the greatest decline in the population of the brown pelican occurred in the 1960's when DDT and other pesticides significantly affected the reproductive system of the birds. These pesticides have since been banned, yet the brown pelican still faces other threats, such as habitat destruction and pollution. Furthermore, pelicans are increasingly experiencing mercury poisoning due to high levels of this metal in the fish they consume, which causes the loss of eggs because shells are often too soft to hatch. Thus, the pelican is often viewed as an indicator species, signaling to researchers certain potential environmental hazards.

Fortunately, Belize supports a healthy population of brown pelicans. Of course, the population can only continue to thrive if habitat destruction caused by irresponsible coastal development and pollution are kept to a minimum.

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