My old biology teacher, J.A. Wood, introduced me to Dixon Lanier Merritt’s classic limerick:
A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill can 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
Wonderful or not, the Australian Pelican (Pelicanus conspicillatus) has an ungainly comic appearance, with its huge beak and S-bend neck:
The pelican waddles when it walks, and the huge expandable gular pouch beneath its beak shows even when flying:
The Australian Pelican’s beak is the bird-world’s longest, up to 50cm, longer than other species of pelicans. That extra length is useful for fossicking in deep water:
When the pelican lifts up an aquatic trophy, the water is first allowed to drain out, exposing the striated inner lining of the beak pouch:
The found object is then gripped firmly in the bird’s beak:
The pelican can then swim off with its trophy-laden pouch:
To be swallowed later at leisure:
Despite their on-land clumsiness, pelicans swim well, and are powerful flyers able to soar on thermals like eagles. They have very long wings (compare this pelican’s wings with those of its magpie “escort”.)
They are able to travel widely in search of food when they need to. In times of abundant rain, they will range far inland, to Lake Eyre for example, and then return to the coast as the water dries up. They feed mostly on fish, caught by plunging their beaks into the water while swimming on the surface (they are too buoyant to swim far underwater like cormorants). Sometimes pelicans will work together to drive fish into shallow water; at other times they forage alone. They will vary their diets as opportunity arises, eating other birds such as teal and silver gulls (eggs, nestlings or adults), reptiles, and (reportedly) the occasional small dog.
This catholic feeding habit may explain the magpie escort in the previous photo, as well as the attention of local gulls below.
In this case, the gulls pursued the pelican right across the bay:
At other times, gulls and pelicans coexist quite peacefully—when there’s plenty of food around, for instance! This congregation is waiting for Fishermen’s Wharf to open in Woy Woy.
Pelicans also like to groom themselves in the sun. This one seems to be running its own calliper test for stomach fat (perhaps after a flying visit to Woy Woy!)
I have seen other grooming pelicans do this, and perhaps it’s this action that inspired the old “Pelican in her Piety” myth.
In ancient Europe, the myth spread that a mother pelican would cut her breast open with her beak and feed her chicks with her blood if there was not enough food. By the 2nd century AD the early Christians had adopted this as an allegory for Christ, who in the Crucifixion story shed his own blood to save humankind. Some believed that the pelican’s blood could resuscitate its dead chicks. A picture of this known as the “Pelican in her Piety” became an icon widely used in paintings, stone reliefs, jewellery, and stained glass windows.
The Pelican Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I of England is so named because she is wearing one of these iconic brooches. In her case it carries the additional allegory of a sovereign prepared to shed her blood for her country. Below is a detail from the portrait, with the pelican’s orange blood flowing just above the red jewel. You can see the pose is similar to the one in the previous photo:
Worldwide, there are eight species of pelican. The Australian Pelican is middle-sized at 4.0-8.2 kg, but has the greatest wingspan (up to 3.4m). The smallest (3.6-4.5 kg) is the Brown Pelican, found over much of the Americas. It is the national bird of St Kitts and Nevis, a pair of them featuring on the national coat of arms. This is my only picture of Brown Pelicans, taken in Barbuda. It’s a 1:1 crop of a long-distance shot using a budget lens, but there’s enough to show the dark body and yellow-beige patch on the head.