Pelican Passage

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 10, 2010

celebrated limerick, and it's true. After white pelicans have herded the fish, they scoop them up by the billful. An enormous naked skin pouch hangs from the lower half of a pelican's otherwise straight bill, which is slightly hooked at the tip. He takes in his beak, enough food for a week / But I'm darned if I see how the helican, ends Merritt's limerick.

Two springs ago, Doris Fitchett and a friend were bird-watching at Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge when they spotted a great blue heron struggling with something large and unwieldy.

"We saw a heron that had caught a great big bullhead catfish," said Fitchett, who has lived nearby and visited the refuge for years. " The fish was huge. I thought, my gosh, there's no way that heron is ever going to get that great big fish down its skinny throat."

As the two friends watched, a pelican swam over to the heron. The fish flopped into shallow water at the birds' feet.

"The pelican just grabbed it," Fitchett explained. "The heron stood there for a minute, as if to say, 'Ok, you try it for a while.' Then it flew off."

The pelican strained to swallow the catfish for some time, and other pelicans swam near as if to watch.

"He held that fish in his bill for a long time before he finally swallowed it," Fitchett continued. "In fact, it took him so long we even started to watch other birds in the meantime, but he finally got it down."

Researchers say a pelican's pouch can hold about three to four gallons of water. That's about two to three times more than its stomach. Pelicans don't fly or swim with full pouches. Instead, they quickly squeeze out water from the corners of their mouths before swallowing. They also use their bills as part of a body-cooling system. On especially hot days, they flutter and pulsate their pouches to cool off.

Birds of such enormous size require a lot of food. An adult pelican eats about four pounds per day. Pelicans mainly eat non-game fish such as chubs, shiners, carp and catfish, as well as crayfish and salamanders. Still, the misconception that they compete with commercial fisherman or sport anglers persists, and pelicans suffer for it. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, illegal shooting is the leading cause of mortality for pelicans reported

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