Burton on the Bay:
A Welcome Bird is the Pelican

A wonderful bird is the pelican,

His bill will 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.

   ­"The Pelican" by Dixon Lanier Merritt: 1910

As more pelicans are evident in the Chesapeake - and mighty welcome, I might add - perhaps it's fitting we know more about these unique and interesting creatures that join fishermen in the hunt for the bounty of the Bay.

What better place to start learning than the second line of Merritt's verse. Might be that the bill can hold more than the stomach can, but - contrary to common belief - that pouch attached to the bill is not used to store fish to eat later.

Most of what's within is not for eating. The pelican is not like most other birds we see on our waters: It doesn't spear or grab just a single fish. You might call a pelican the commercial fisherman of the bird world.

That beak with its big sack underneath acts like a net to scoop up a patch of water with a fish or two or more within. Then it drains the water, swallows the fish and is off on another aerial survey of the smorgasbord of the Bay.

It doesn't wait for a week, as Merritt suggests. It's a big bird, among the biggest of North America, up to 50 inches long and with an even longer wingspread. It has to keep its belly full, and to do so it targets water with fish in it, takes in the whole works then sorts the catch out of the soup.

I've watched them do this in the back bays of Assateague Island where flocks of pelicans are also building up. They have to get rid of the water in their pouches before heading back into the sky; if they don't they'd be too nose heavy to fly, despite those 747-size wings.

Pelican watching has become a fascinating pastime for those who fish or cruise the Chesapeake. They're still a novelty in the Bay - though several nice colonies are building up, the latest of which is a small island on the Eastern Shore that state biologist Dave Brinker won't identify. After all pelicans deserve a little privacy, too.

And how that island population has exploded. Brinker figured on banding 15 or so nestlings of perhaps 15 to 20 pairs this year. He found 143 pairs. Propagation is efficient: There are no foxes on the island and pelicans have few other natural enemies, though herons are known to kill pelicans - not to eat, but perhaps to get rid of competition.

Herons aren't known for being gregarious or good tempered. Pelicans are more sociable, less wary of man and equally fascinating. Big and clumsy as they seem, they can dive beneath the surface and grab a bucket of water with fish inside before the latter can get away.


Neighborly Competition

All of a sudden came the pelicans:

crazy old men in baseball caps, who flew

like jackknives and collapsed like fans.

	­"Skin Diving in the Virgins" by John Malcom Brinnin: 1970

The lumbering flight of the pelican couldn't be better described. These birds with crested heads do appear like crotchety old short-legged men in baseball caps. Yet once they spot fish, they fold up wings that can be six and a half to nine feet across, then splash into the brine, all 10 to 17 pounds of them.

That pouch affixed to the lower bill can scoop up three gallons of water in addition to the fish within, which means the bird can just about double its weight in one gulp. See why they must drain their net before resuming flight?

I've seen them empty their reservoir by squeezing the water out from the corner of their mouths, once with Capt. Bruce Scheible while competing for fish with a small flight of these birds near Smith Island. "Ain't that something," said Bruce. "That bird caught enough menhaden on that one dive to give us bait for a day."

Some of the pelicans are building up colonies in the creeks, according to Bruce, who says before long he won't be surprised to see them at the docks of his fishing center at Ridge near the mouth of the Potomac. All of this has happened over the past five years. Prior to that, all his pelican watching was in Florida, where he fishes in the winter.

Scheible likens their population explosion to that of ospreys. "You can't find a pole sticking out of the water down here without ospreys on it," said Bruce. "And they find the catching easy, too. It's a wonder there's any fish left for our parties."


Slow Starts to Smooth Soaring

The dive of the pelican is fascinating; watching one get back into the air is even more so. This bird is a strong swimmer, driving itself with strokes of its large webbed feet. Reference books tell us that young birds still learning to fly can move along on the water at three miles an hour.

They have great buoyancy thanks to internal air sacs not only within their bones but also under their skin. When lounging or swimming they are graceful indeed - until it comes time to fly.

To get airborne, the pelican is something like a canvasback duck. It has to build up some speed for takeoff. If there isn't a good breeze to give it some lift, it must run atop the water, beating both wings furiously and pounding both feet on the surface.

Once off the brine, it is as graceful and silent a flier as the eagle or osprey. It can soar high above the water as it scouts for its next snack. But on land it's as awkward as it looks.

It waddles about clumsily but even then maintains what could be described as a dignified air. On the wing, it is a masterpiece in flight as it travels silently in flocks, males, females and young all mixed in.

Flight is generally level, head held back on the shoulders, the bill resting on the folded neck and with slow, powerful beats of the wings - about two beats a second. Pelicans sometimes fly in a V-formation, but usually it's a straight line.

Hereabouts we have the brown pelican; the smaller white variety is in the West, some in Texas. The white is not a diver, more a pack fisherman, forming in semi-circles and flapping wings to drive fish ahead of the pack where they can be scooped close to shore.

Why do we have pelicans, a bird that 25 years ago was on the endangered list, and not native to this area? We've curtailed insecticides and pesticides, and the pelican - like the osprey and eagle - is bounding back, with the pelican so well that its original range is becoming crowded forcing range expansion toward us.

Fishermen shouldn't fear too much competition for sportfish. The pelican's diet is primarily bait and trash fish. So let's welcome them and hope for the day they even come farther up the Bay. They're most welcome.

| Issue 30 |

Volume VII Number 30
July 29 - August 4, 1999
New Bay Times

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