Pelicans are pretty unique birds and are easily recognized. Here in the Lowcountry, they are known as the “Lowcountry Coastal Air Force”, due to their ability to fly in tight formation literally right over the water, wheeling in the air, and just putting on spectacular displays of diving and splashing for their prey.
Here in the Lowcountry, our most common pelican is the brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis), although American White Pelicans are also seen. The brown pelican can be distinguished by its color and size. They are chocolate-colored, stocky and quite large, with a brilliant white skullcap during breeding and take on a golden color in the winter. They are very skilled divers and, unlike the white pelican which doesn’t dive after its prey, the brown pelican makes amazing turns and twists in midair, plunging beak first into the water in pursuit of fish. Now, even though most people think they carry fish in their throat pouch, they only use it to separate the water from their meal. Upon diving and gulping a large amount of water with their fish, they lower their head, allowing water to flow out of their bill, leaving behind only the fish. They then tip their head up and the fish slides down their throat lickety split, minus the water!
Brown pelicans nest in large mixed nesting colonies with other birds like terns, oystercatchers, and other seabirds. They can nest on sandy islands or isolated islands with some scrub and shrub. They build their nests on top of this low vegetation or even on the ground and lay 2-3 eggs. The young hatch and are quite noisy during this time, but the adults are curiously quiet and don’t make a sound (can’t get a word in edgewise).
Pelicans may seem like a common sight, but years ago, the population took a dive (pardon the pun). Insecticides like DDT built up in the fish that made up the pelican’s diet and “biomagnified” or became more concentrated in the pelican. This buildup of poison cause a host of problems for the pelican, most notably, a thinning of the eggshells of the pelican’s eggs. The eggs would break when the adults incubated them and as a result, many colonies failed to produce a single chick. To this day, there are many parts of their former ranges where these birds no longer nest.
Pelicans today still face other threats to their survival. Loss of proper nesting habitat and locations, nest disturbance from boaters, beach walkers, and dog walkers, and of course, the ever present threat of development still continues to threaten this large beautiful bird. Hopefully, we can continue to set aside these sites and the pelican can continue to be a common sight, wheeling, diving, and soaring over the beaches of the Lowcountry.