BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
During a long career of bird-watching, I’ve seen birds do a lot of strange things, but from an overall crazy standpoint, brown pelicans take the cake.
Despite their somewhat gangly appearance, brown pelicans are actually one of the birding world’s most colorful and graceful members.
Perhaps their outlandish appearance leads to their wild antics. I once watched a brown pelican play tag with two eastern painted turtles that had the misfortune of sharing a small enclosed pond with the misguided fish-eater. The game started when the pelican snuck up behind one of the turtles and bit it in the backside. While the pelican’s bite didn’t hurt the turtle, it did make it mad enough to whip around and lunge at the pelican. This made the pelican jump back and, with a mighty flap of his wings, look down derisively at this creature (one-tenth its size) that had just “attacked” him. The pelican then hopped over to the other side of the pond and proceeded to sneak up and bite the second painted turtle which, to the apparent utter delight of the pelican, reacted the same way as the first turtle. Having established a successful pattern of “tag, you’re it,” the pelican kept at it—alternately biting one turtle, then the next—for the next fifteen minutes.
Finally tiring, the pelican began his next game—playing catch with himself. To start this game, the pelican scooped several golf ball-sized stones into his pouch. He then dunked his entire head underwater and jerked his bill sideways, flinging the stones out of his pouch and sending them clattering up against the rounded opposite side of the pond. Swaggering his head from side-to-side as if to say, “Hey did you see what I just did!” the pelican then proudly sauntered across the pond, picked up the same stones and “threw” them back across to the other side. When I left after another fifteen minutes, the pelican was still engaged in his self-made game of toss.
One of Nature’s most proficient birds at skimming just above the water surface, this brown pelican quartet prepares to feed in tandem.
Watching brown pelicans feed is even more entertaining. At Sanibel Island, Florida, brown pelicans come barreling along just above the waves like fighter squadrons in groups of three to eight birds. Then on the command of the squadron commander (lead bird) who has spotted the quarry (fish) in the water below, the birds all rise up—one after the other—to a height of some twenty-five to thirty feet above the surf. They then all dive-bomb in unison face-first into the water below and pop back up a few seconds later with their pouches fully engorged with water and fish. They float for a few minutes to gulp down the fish before taking off again as a group for their next fishing sortie further down the beach.
READY, SET—A brown pelican prepares to dive while hovering above its prey.
GO—Having selected its prey, a brown pelican demonstrates its amazing plunge-feeding behavior.
The range of the brown pelican is enormous, covering most of the Americas as well as many Caribbean islands. Primarily found in coastal areas, these comical-looking birds of children’s book and story fame frequently live full-time in shallow waters along islands, sandbars, and shorelines or in sheltered bays. Brown pelicans prefer to nest in colonies on islands that are covered with rocks or mangrove forests.
Finally, there’s this: In his book All Things Reconsidered, renowned birder and illustrator Roger Tory Peterson describes a brown pelican that brazenly walked into a Venice, Florida, fish market and then just stood there waiting to be served.
Brown pelicans settling into roost at sunset on a line of pilings in northwest Florida’s St. Mark’s National Wildlife Refuge.
Photo Credits: © Budd Titlow, NATUREGRAPHS (ALL)
Author’s bio:For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need.Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.