PELICANS are a genus of large water birds that make up the family PELECANIDAE. They are characterised by a long beak and a large throat pouch used for catching prey and draining water from the scooped-up contents before swallowing. They have predominantly pale plumage, the exceptions being the Brown and Peruvian pelicans.
Long thought to be related to frigate-birds, cormorants, gannets and boobies, pelicans, instead, are now known to be most closely related to the Shoebill and Hamerkop. Ibises, Spoonbills and Herons are more distant relatives. Fossil evidence of Pelicans dates back to, at least, 30 million years, to the remains of a beak very similar to that of modern species recovered from Oligocene Strata in France. ——- Although they are among the heaviest o flying birds, they are relatively light for their apparent bulk, because of air-pockets in the skeleton and beneath the skin enabling them to float in the water. The tail is short and square. The wings are long and broad, suitably shaped for soaring and gliding flight, and have the unusually large number of 30-35 secondary flight feathers.
The males are generally larger than the females and have longer bills. The smallest species is the Brown Pelican and the largest is believed to be the Dalmatian. Modern Pelicans are found on all continents, except Antarctica. They primarily inhabit warm regions.
Pelicans swim well with their strong legs and their webbed feet. They rub the back of their heads, on their PREEN GLANDS to pick up an oily secretion which they transfer to their plumage —— to waterproof it. They dissipate excess heat by GULAR FLUTTER —— rippling the skin of the throat and pouch with the bill open to promote evaporative cooling. They roost and loaf communally on beaches, sand-banks and in shallow water. A fibrous layer, deep in the breast muscles, can hold the wings rigidly horizontal for gliding and soaring. They can also fly low (or SKIM) over stretches of water, using a phenomenon known as GROUND EFFECT to reduce DRAG and increase LIFT.—–The diet of Pelicans consists of fish, but they also eat amphibians, turtles and crustaceans. They catch multiple small fish by expanding the throat pouch, which must be drained above the water surface before swallowing. This operation takes up to a minute. Pelicans live for 15 to 25 years in the wild, although one reached an age of 54yrs in captivity.
The pelican (HENET in Egyptian) was associated, in Ancient Egypt, with death and afterlife. HENET was also referred to in the Pyramid Texts as “The Mother Of The King.” The MOCHE people, of Ancient Peru worshipped nature. They placed emphasis on animals and often depicted Pelicans in their art.—- Alcatraz Island was given its name by the Spanish, because of the large numbers of Brown Pelicans nesting there. The word ALCATRAZ, is itself derived from the Arabic —– “al-caduos,” a term used for a water-carrying vessel and likened to the pouch of the Pelican. The English name ALBATROSS is also derived by corruption of the Spanish word. In Medieval Europe, the Pelican was though to be particularly attentive to her young, to the point of providing her own blood, by wounding her own breast when no other food was available.
The Pelican is the subject of a popular limerick, originally composed by Dixon Lanier Merritt in 1910, with several variations by other authors. The original version ran :
A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill will hold more than is belican
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.