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Pelican brief

Ambika Kamath | Updated on January 27, 2018

No chop, no change: It seems that prehistoric pelicans used their beaks to fish in much the same way that their living relatives do. Seen here is a brown pelican. Photo: Ambika Kamath   -  Ambika Kamath

Only eight species, good at catching fish and focused on finding food. Yet there is something arresting about the unchangeability of this waterbird

In a world with so much competing for our attention, what does it take for something to captivate you time and again? I don’t know exactly, but whatever it is, pelicans have it. I’ve watched pelicans for years, and because I live right by the sea now, I see them often. Still, I always stop to watch when they pass by. Their silhouettes are instantly arresting, high in the sky or low against the water. Their carefully poised heads are dwarfed by hefty beaks. Their well-built wings slice powerfully through the air as they fly, graceful alone or in formation. And when they dive, pelicans can feel like perfection.

Despite my long-standing admiration, I’ve often hesitated to pin down precisely why I remain in awe of pelicans. Poet John Keats once described scientific inquiry as clipping “an Angel’s wings”, asking “do not all charms fly at the mere touch of cold philosophy?” Biologist Richard Dawkins replied, in his book Unweaving the Rainbow, with an emphatic no, arguing that scientific explanations of wondrous phenomena in fact add to their wonder. And in approaching almost any aspect of the natural world, I side with Dawkins, not Keats — I believe in the particular joy of understanding why a creature is the way it is. Except when it comes to pelicans. Inexplicably, I worry that when a pelican lays scientifically dismantled before me, it’ll lose mystery.

Maybe I worry that pelicans will fall from wonder when we try to understand them because their most intriguing attributes are associated with the prosaic task of feeding themselves. At feeding time, pelicans’ iconic pouches, which otherwise stay tucked neatly away, take centre stage. As the bird’s beak dips below the water surface, the usually straight bones of its lower jaw curve outwards, like the edges of two hands cupped carefully. Water rushes into this suddenly cavernous opening, and if the pelican has timed its actions correctly, a fish gets trapped in it too. The stretchy elastic skin of the pouch can fill with more than 10 litres of water, which is too heavy for the bird to lift and more than its stomach can hold. So the bird must drain the water through a slightly-open beak before it can swallow its meal. For brown pelicans, this manoeuvre comes at the end of a metres-long dive in which the bird positions itself precisely, to avoid injury when hurtling towards the water with enough force to stun the fish they’re attempting to catch. From the repeated bending of the jaws to the stretching of the pouch to the impact of beak and body with the water’s surface, it seems that every element of how a pelican eats brings the bird perilously close to injury. For these birds, even feeding isn’t mundane.

Perhaps I’m scared that on looking too closely, pelicans will turn out to be boring — really good at catching fish, but not much else. This is somewhat true, for pelicans are remarkable examples of unchangeability. Fossil pelicans from 30 million years ago look nearly identical to those living today, with the same spade-shaped upper jaw and outward-bowing lower jaw bones. It seems likely that prehistoric pelicans used these beaks to fish in much the same way that their living relatives do. And in 30 million years of looking and behaving this way, pelicans haven’t diversified much either. There are just eight pelican species, despite these birds populating almost every continent. But while in certain lights stasis feels boring, from other angles it looks like stability, even success. Pelicans haven’t changed much, simply because they haven’t needed to, because they’re good at what they do.

Maybe my fear of learning about pelicans stems from the possibility of discovering facts that would cast them in a fearsome light, or even a slightly comical one. Both these fears were borne out in the process of researching for this piece. To witness these fears, search the internet for “pelican St James’s Park”— you too can watch with a mixture of terror and bemusement as a pelican, possibly hungry or maybe just bored, scoops up and swallows a nearby pigeon. But these forays into feeding on birds are relatively rare. More commonly, the pelican finds itself at the centre of drama involving other seabirds stealing their usual meal of fish. While much of a pelican’s feeding regime operates like a well-oiled machine, seagulls have learnt to capitalise on the single moment of hesitation — when pelicans must wait as water drains from their pouches. Leading up to this vulnerable moment, hordes of gulls descend to perch on the pelican’s head, back, wings, and they swoop in to nab whatever they can. Suddenly this bird, which otherwise seems in full control of every wingbeat, turn, and plunge, appears helpless.

This experience of delving into the details of the pelican’s life has shown me cracks in its aura of invincibility. But most of what I’ve learnt about the feats these birds accomplish has imbued them with more wonder. I will still stop to watch them fly, in tribute to their stability at danger’s edge in performing that most vital task of hunting for food. But maybe I’ll also smile a little at the thought of a gull perched on the head.

Ambika Kamath is a behavioural ecologist, currently based at the University of California, Santa Barbara; > ambikamath@gmail.com

Published on January 26, 2018

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