Brown Pelicans: Beachside Beggars
Tara A. Spears
The Pacific Brown Pelican, pelecanus occidentalis, are easy to spot in Jaltemba Bay as these large seabirds enjoy begging food from tourists and scarfing up the fishermen’
s throwaways as the boats bring their catch to shore. It is a sign of the specie’s evolution that these wild birds have not only learned to tolerate humans but have adjusted their diet to interact with people on the beaches around the world. On California shores the Pacific Brown Pelican will waddle up for a Pringle; in Jaltemba Bay they gobble tortillas; on Ecuadorian shores they munch empanadas in addition to their regular fish diet. Pelicans have always been my favorite seabird because of their amazing behavior, their unique appearance, and their ocean habitat.
Dive bombers: Though they have an awkward gait on land, Brown Pelicans are strong swimmers and masterful fliers. They fly to and from their fishing grounds in V-formations or lines just above the water’s surface. They, and the closely related Peruvian Pelican, are the only pelican species to perform spectacular head-first dives (typically ending in a huge splash visible from far away) to trap fish. Pelicans usually forage during the day, but may feed at night during a full moon. Before swallowing their prey they drain the water from their pouches. If their own dive doesn’t produce dinner, the swift Brown Pelican will steal another bird’s catch!
According to Allbird, “Pelicans usually feed above estuaries and shallow ocean waters within 12 miles of shore, but sometimes venture over the deeper waters past the narrow continental shelf of the Pacific coast.” They occasionally feed by sitting on the surface and seizing prey with their bills, usually when a dense school of fish is close to the surface and the water is too shallow and muddy to plunge. Clever opportunists, Pacific Pelicans also steal food from other seabirds and scavenge dead animals.
Scientific research has disproven the old fishermen’s belief in pelican competition. The pelicans primarily eat fish of little value to humans, as well as salamanders, shrimp, and crayfish. During breeding season, the birds often forage at night, locating fish by touch. While small fish are the major part of their diet, they can eat surprisingly large ones. Brown pelicans also eat some invertebrates, such as squid or prawns. They are a familiar sight around fishing ports within their range, where they roost on piers, docks, and fishing boats, ready to catch fish scraps.
Local Island Sanctuary: Isla Peña
We are very fortunate to have a beautiful little island in Jaltemba Bay that is a breeding spot for several species of seabirds, including the brown pelican. Pelicans nest in colonies for safety. Both sexes build the nest which is a scrap or debris mound on the ground, or a stick nest in a tree. Nesting on islands is the preferred breeding habitat for Pacific Brown Pelicans. Highly social all year, pelicans breed in colonies of up to several thousand pairs—usually on small islands where they are free from terrestrial predators.
During breeding season, pelican colonies are sensitive to disturbance by tourists and fisherman. Adult birds can be frightened off their nests, and newly hatched chicks can die quickly in the blazing sun. Or if disturbed when on the nest, Pelicans will suddenly take flight, sometimes crushing their eggs.
Their skittishness is understandable: For centuries, many fishermen have considered the birds as competitors for fish, and in the past, the fishermen often raided pelican colonies to kill the birds.
The male defends a nest site and nearby perches for up to 3 weeks until he attracts a mate. The pair is monogamous throughout the breeding season. The female builds the nest in 7–10 days as the male gathers progressively smaller sticks for her. She pushes sticks together with her bill and then forms a nest cup by pressing with her feet and body. The male brings new material for the female to add throughout incubation, and he may rearrange the nest while inside. According to biologist Shields, “Pacific Brown Pelican nests can measure up to 30 inches across and 9 inches high on the outside.” Pelicans usually lay two or three eggs and incubate the eggs using their feet. Both parents care for the naked, helpless chicks.
Brown Pelicans regurgitate pre-digested fish onto the nest floor for their nestlings for the first few weeks, later switching to whole fish once the young are big enough. The young can fly and fend for themselves after 3 months, but take 3–5 years of age to reach sexual maturity.
“I’m too sexy for my feathers….” The variation in Brown Pelican plumage throughout their lifespan is dramatic. The left photo (photographed in Guayabitos,) is an adult male in spectacular breeding plumage with the bright red bill pouch. The right photo is that of an immature Brown Pelican. The juvenile Brown Pelican is a dirty brown color with a white belly. Its bill has a gray tint to it. As the brown pelican increases in age, the bill becomes paler and even acquires a yellow/orange color tip.
The sexes look similar, though males are slightly larger, with short, dark legs, long, broad wings, a large, heavy all-brown body, white neck, pale yellow face, and a huge bill that is paler at the base and tipped with yellow. The coloration of Pacific Brown Pelicans is less vivid than that of land birds, being restricted to variations of black, grey, or white as a survival adaptation. Another adaptation is to live in colonial groups, so seeing a solitary pelican is usually an indication of illness or injury.
On the other hand, the non-breeding Pacific Brown Pelicans (flying photo) will have a long, pale bill, dark throat pouch with a white head and neck and a dark gray-brown belly. Their wings look long, somewhat ragged looking wings. Lastly, they have a mottled gray back and wings. Sexual maturity in Pacific Brown Pelicans is reached after three to five years. In the wild, Brown Pelicans may live 15 to 25 years.
Throughout a lifetime of sharing my ocean fishing with these airborne fishing guides, their maneuvers helped pass the time while waiting for the big one to bite. Or when I’ve flopped on the beach for R and R, the begging Pelicans always make me smile. Beach time and Pelican watching are synonymous. How fortunate that Jaltemba Bay is home to a year round Pacific Brown Pelican population besides being the winter home for migrating pelican groups. Fascinating birds!