by Amy Schoeman
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.
This delightful limerick by Dixon Lanier Merrit (1879–1954) highlights one of the pelican’s most conspicuous and interesting features – his remarkable beak. Interestingly enough, the bill with its distensible pouch is not used for storing food but for keeping it temporarily until the bird is ready to swallow it. Before doing this he tips his head forward, empties out the water and then swallows whatever fish he’s caught during foraging operations. A male weighing up to 15 kg can hold as much as 4 kg of forage in his pouch. He consumes this before taking off in flight.
While pelicans eat primarily fish, they also feed on the eggs and nestlings of Cape cormorants. They either forage singly, skimming fish from the water as they swim, or in V-shaped groups herding schools of fish into shallow waters where it’s easier to scoop them up, using the bill like a net. Another interesting feature of pelicans is that they drink salt water and shed salty tears. This is done through a salt gland and enables the bird to get rid of excess salt.
While awkward and ungainly on land, these large marine birds are remarkably graceful when in the water and especially when in flight. Unfolded their gigantic wings have a span of up to four metres. They typically fly in V-shaped formations, although single birds are often seen doing solo flights. Before taking off they lumber along on their sturdy legs and webbed feet for quite a distance with the wings stretched out to gain sufficient speed to become airborne. Then they fly apparently effortlessly, reaching heights of up to 1 700 m. They are also dynamic gliders.
The species that occurs most commonly in Namibia, the great white pelican, Pelecanus onocrotalus, is listed as a red-data species. These pelicans frequent coastal islands, estuaries, bays, lagoons and even large dams, where they forage in flocks by driving the shoals into shallow waters and scooping up fish and crustaceans into the pouch. Generally white with black flight feathers and yellow legs, their bills are long and straight, with the upper beak pink and grey and hooked at the tip, and the pouch yellow.
The other pelican found in Namibia, the considerably smaller (maximum weight seven kilogram) and far less common pinkbacked pelican, P. rufescens, is seen only in the Swakopmund and Walvis Bay surroundings and at Hardap Dam. This pelican’s bill is pale yellow with a pink tip and the legs buff yellow. Breeding populations of these birds occur from Zululand in Southern Africa northwards and in the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana.
This article appeared in the July/Aug ‘04 edition of Travel News Namibia.