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Pelican Passage

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 10, 2010

The first time I heard someone point to the sky and exclaim, "Hey, here comes a flock of pelicans," I thought he was pulling my leg. Pelicans in Missouri? We were at a picnic, and I figured he was trying to get me to gape at the sky just long enough so he could swipe the last cookie from my plate and devour it while I wasn't looking.

Soon after, we were standing at the edge of a pasture watching about 20 white pelicans circle before landing with a great splash and surfing of feet on a small lake in southwest Missouri. Watching them bank and tilt against a blazing blue sky-which they did for quite a while-left me dizzy. My friend could have stolen my last cookie, and I would never have noticed.

They really were white pelicans and they had landed-like they do every spring-on a Missouri waterway to rest and eat before flying farther north to breed. American white pelicans leave their winter homes in the southern U.S. coastal states and fly north, passing through Missouri in March, April, May and sometimes June. While in Missouri, white pelicans eat, rest and hang out on our rivers, lakes and ponds.

Pelicans fly in solemn groups with their heads held back on their shoulders and bills tucked tight. They have a wingspan of 8 to 9 1/2 feet, and they beat their wings just one or two long, slow strokes per second. Weighing 10 to 17 pounds, they need considerable strength to stay aloft.

On top of all this impressive size, white pelicans can appear almost blinding white. The white is offset by flashy black wing tips and bright orangish-yellow feet, eyes and bill.

The other member of the pelican family found in North America-the endangered brown pelican-is much smaller and lives exclusively near coastal areas. Brown pelicans are known for making wild nose dives into the surf after fish. White pelicans don't make the same athletic dives after food, but they do something just as remarkable: they herd fish. Working in synchronized lines of five or six or more, they make a big production of flapping and splashing to move the fish along. Once corralled into shallow water or encircled by two or more lines of pelicans, the fish are easy prey.

A wonderful bird is the pelican/His bill can hold more than his belican, begins Dixon Lanier Merritt's 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 from leg band returns. The National Audubon Society recorded that white pelican numbers took a long-term nose dive until the 1960s. Since then, their numbers have increased, and populations are believed stable.

Two hundred years ago, pelicans were abundant, as evidenced by journal entries in the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery.

"I saw a great number of feathers floating down the river . . . For three miles after I saw those feathers continuing to run in that manner," wrote Meriwether Lewis in 1804. "At length we were surprised by the appearance of a flock of Pilican (sic) at rest on a large sandbar."

There were so many of them, noted Lewis, that he didn't even attempt to count them. If a flock of 20 or so flying over our Missouri sky leaves a group of picnickers reeling, just imagine how awesome thousands must have looked.

Doris Fitchett remembers one of the first times she saw pelicans flying at Swan Lake. It was a clear, pretty morning about 30 years ago when a flock of about 200 pelicans arrived.

"I was standing near the south end of the dam, and the birds started down from the north end," she recalled. "It was just like an ocean wave as they flew down and started to land. The birds in back flew right over the ones just in front and settled into the water. It was like a rolling motion. There weren't any stragglers, just a perfect wave of birds."

Like other water birds, pelicans are not especially graceful while walking on land. They have short legs and fully webbed feet, and they waddle. They are among the most gregarious and social birds, keeping close quarters with one another. In the water, though, they are terrifically strong swimmers. A well-developed system of internal air sacks just under their skin and deeper inside their bodies helps keep them afloat. They are buoyant and draft high in the water.

To get airborne, they beat their huge wings and pound the surface of the water with both feet in unison. Once aloft, grace and elegance return.

We don't see young pelicans in Missouri because they nest in the upper Midwest, in western states and Canada. Both sexes tend the nest, which may be in a colony of just a few to several hundred pairs. Young birds eat partially predigested food from the adults' bills, sometimes appearing to climb all the way inside the offered pouch to eat.

Pelicans need Missouri's waterways to rest, eat and prepare for reproduction. Without healthy waterways, Doris Fitchett and her friend wouldn't have witnessed such an amazing sight. Without pelicans, we could only wonder what Meriwether Lewis described in his journal, and the world would be short a limerick. So watch for them next spring and exclaim to everyone who will listen, "What a wonderful bird is the pelican!"

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