Seen right around Australia’s coastal fringe and also hundreds of kilometres inland on many of our outback waterways, pelicans appear to hold a fascination to all who behold them
With their striking black and white markings, the Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus) is one of seven different species of pelican found throughout the world.
Varyingly described as clumsy, gangly, awkward as well as majestic and graceful, the Australian Pelican has a large pink pouched bill, stout blue legs and rings of yellow around the eyes. Many observers believe they are the most beautiful of all the pelican species.
A graceful bird in flight, pelicans can often be seen soaring at extremely high altitudes. They are quite superb aviators and on a hot day they often hitch a ride on spiralling thermal updrafts gliding in circles for what seems hours at a time. On occasions these large birds (with wing spans up to 2.5 metres and weighing up to 8 kg) have been reported by airline pilots a kilometre or more in the air cruising in the upper currents with their wings almost motionless and slightly tucked in at well over 100 kph – all with apparent ease. Pelicans use the updrafts and breezes in the upper atmosphere quite superbly to not only cool off, but to travel vast distances in search of food. It is the reason that after rain in central inland areas (including Lake Eyre), pelicans are some of the first ‘outsiders’ to arrive looking for a meal from the new life brought out when rains do come to Australia’s remote areas.
When time comes to breed, pelicans are colonial nesters with most colonies at their regular breeding sites generally varying from around 10 or 12 pairs up to hundreds and more.
Their nests are little more than shallow scrapings on the ground, often lined with seaweed, sticks and discarded feathers. Compared to many other birds, the pelican nests are quite untidy affairs and can sometimes even be found with old pieces of plastic, thongs and pieces of cardboard. Pelican breeding pairs share the task of building the nest, incubating the eggs (between 32 and 35 days) and later feeding the young.
There are usually two eggs (sometimes up to four) laid and within the colony the newly hatched chicks huddle together in small ‘crèches’. When born, baby pelicans are pink in colour and become brown and white as their feathers develop. The first hatched chick is usually bigger than its brothers or sisters and gets most of the food. The pelicans’ casual nesting style is somewhat carried over to their parenting practice – it seems ‘child care’ is not a high priority. The adults leave the nesting site for sometimes quite long periods – even up to a few days – as they go off in search of food, leaving the youngsters to entirely fend for themselves. Other adult birds still at the nesting site will however, also protect the youngsters in the colony. In any case, most breeding colony sites are on remote offshore islands, safe from most predators.
When the parent pelicans do return to the nest with food, they actually carry their catch in their stomachs, not in their bills as sometimes thought. They then regurgitate the partially digested food which is quite easily taken and digested by the babies.
The gangly, even unwieldy looking bill of the pelican is often used quite viciously at feed time at popular holiday sites when they compete with seagulls for hand-outs being fed to them. In normal food hunting, pelicans use their bill in a ‘scoop net’ action catching small fish, crustaceans, frogs and shrimps. Food is rarely carried in the pouch but is simply balanced there momentarily before being upended and head first slides its way down the neck into the pelican’s stomach.
Apart from its use in catching food, the pelican’s pouch is also handy for catching rain. Birds have been seen during heavy rain with their bills open and pouch distended facing head to wind into the rain. Although a pelican would never completely fill its pouch with either water or food, an adult bird’s pouch has a capacity of 7 litres! We have all heard the saying that “it’s beak can hold more than its belly can”!
The pelican’s pouch is, in fact, even much more important to them than might at first seem obvious. The pouch has additional functions – it acts as an evaporative cooler and radiator. When the weather is hot, pelicans can be seen mouth agape, fluttering the floor of their pouch. This part of their body is richly supplied with blood vessels, bringing body heat to the surface where it is cleverly dispersed through evaporation and radiation.
And there’s more! The brightly coloured pouches are also a sexual turn-on in the world of pelicans. If you see pelicans with bright pink pouches with purple stripes, it is a sure sign that their breeding season is under way. In the wild, pelicans usually live between 10 and 25 years.
Whether pelicans are, in fact, awkward and clumsy or majestic and graceful, it seems sure that they will always be a favourite wherever we see them!
Australian pelicans are found all around the country and all too often are injured with fish hooks in their legs, wings, beaks, or hopelessly entangled in fishing line.
Fishing for many of us is a popular recreational activity but please be careful around pelicans and other sea birds. If you do hook a bird, don’t cut the line and let the bird fly away – it will continue to suffer. Instead, slowly pull the bird ashore and gently place a towel or shirt over the bird’s head and eyes and then carefully try to remove the hook or line. Do not release the bird if hooks have been swallowed or are too deeply embedded – call your local wildlife group or National Park authority for assistance.