Not only because “His beak can hold more than his belly can…..”, as the well-known ditty goes, but also because he (or she) can attain a ripe old age.
We may well have a world record for geriatric pelicans in Namibia – at least one of our birds has lived to see Namibia change between 1972 and 2009.
Banded with a metal ring that has stood the test of time, the sea air and salt water for 36 years and six months, Percy (or Penelope – we haven’t yet determined its sex) is in fine fettle and plumage, as shown by the photo.
Moreover, the ring number is readable, showing H1024 clearly. He (or she) received this ring as a downy, reasonably ugly baby, just before year’s end on 30 December 1972, when I banded a number of pelican chicks on a Walvis Bay guano platform.
Later, 13 320 days later to be exact, at Mola Mola Safaris, located at the southern end of Walvis Bay harbour, the wearer of ring H1024 was seen and photographed by me and tourists (many of whom did not notice the ring).
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that our pelican is not a great traveller.
In the timespan of three-and-a-half decades Percelope (for want of a better name) has covered 12 kilometres from its place of hatching.
Perhaps it has flown further – even as far as Hardap Dam or Etosha Pan or Botswana, to breed. Pelicans are great flyers and cover immense distances when they soar on lifting thermals.
Whatever experiences Percelope has had, our bird may lay claim to a world record of pelican longevity, emphasising the benefits of being a free-living bird in Namibia’s healthy climate.
Add to that a regular diet of Benguela pilchards, provided by the skippers of pleasure cruise boats when they feed pelicans that swoop in low alongside the boat, much to the astonishment and delight of guests.
Every year thousands of visitors experience unforgettable hours spent on a Walvis Bay boat cruise, which includes the possibility of viewing whales, sunfish, seals, dolphins… and perhaps Percelope, who will obligingly entertain tourists with a low-level fly past, the shiny metal ring clearly visible on its left leg.
As Percelope swoops in low, with perfect pelican precision, taking the proffered pilchard literally from the skipper’s fingers, the bird provides photographers with the rare opportunity of capturing on digital imagery a pelican whose age is known almost to the day.
To calculate this, simply take the starting date as 30 December 1972 when Percelope received a ring and you can update his or her age to 13 320-plus days, depending on when you see him or her.
The decision on whether our pelican is ‘he’ or ‘she’ may be proven this coming breeding season which, for coastal pelicans, will be in Namibia’s summer months.
If it is Percy, his facial skin will be pink, his forehead will be swollen, with a short crest of feathers trailing from the back of his head. Penelope will, on the other hand, also have a knob-like swelling on the forehead but her crest of feathers will be longer and her facial skin will be yellow to bright orange. Hopefully Percelope will live to tell us whether we can call him Percy or her Penelope.
This article appeared in the Aug/Sep ‘09 edition of Travel News Namibia.
Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.