Gawky, loved, ridiculed: Pelicans hold their own — plus lots of fish

“A wonderful bird is the pelican. Its beak can hold more than its bellican.”

Pelican Island, Florida –  We get our first look at the huge, awkward birds as soon as we reach the island where the rescue of the American Pelican got its start just over a century ago.

Brown Pelicans, flying in formation

First just two, then a handful of the Brown Pelicans appear, circling like lumbering aircraft looking for a place to land on the small, wooded island that gives the Pelican Island Wildlife Refuge in coastal northeast Florida its name.

When you get a close-up view, it’s hard to take your eyes off these creatures with their enormous, outright comical bills, bright yellow feet and wingspans that can reach 10 feet across.

White Pelicans, one showing off its remarkable beak. American White Pelicans are migratory, breeding in upper North America and wintering in the south. Brown Pelicans are year-round residents all along the lower coast of North and Central America. Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal.

Brown Pelican

This refuge is a especially meaningful spot for pelicans, Located just off the ocean in the Indian River east of Orlando, this is where the destruction of all kinds of grand wading birds took place around the turn of  the century. The slaughter so infuriated President Theodore  Roosevelt that he decreed this strip of land, along with the small island in the waterway, the nation’s first national wildlife refuge in 1903.

Since then, birds like the pelicans have survived a series of threats, from the impacts of DDT to the loss of marshes and coastal lands they rely on. At least for now, they’re holding their own in the U.S. — drawing appreciation as well as good-natured ridicule for their figures, beaks and flying styles that hardly look aerodynamic.

Brown Pelicans show off their awkward flight style.

 And yet almost everything about pelicans has evolved to suit their aquatic existence. They have built-in air sacs that help keep them afloat high in the water. Their wings lock into place to enable them to fly sometimes hundreds of miles at a time in search of food. Their beaks open to a bag-like size perfectly designed to collect the fish they live on. 

The history of the pelican’s revival fits the pattern of bird conservation in the U.S. Americans often stepped forward to save troubled species only when they’re in danger of disappearing altogether. The pelican was among the many large, elegant Florida birds that became the target of hunters in the late 1800s and early 1900s at a time when women’s hats were decorated with all kinds of bird feathers. For a time, the bright white features of egrets, for instance, were worth more than gold.

Roosevelt was a life-long birder as well as a hunter, brought up with a strong belief in careful harvest and caring for birds. When he discovered the extent of the losses taking place in Florida, he insisted something had to be done. The best telling of this story we’ve found is in Douglas Brinkley’s “The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America.”  

As Brinkley explains what happened, Roosevelt decreed the first refuge almost on a whim when his lawyers told him they thought it would hold up in court. Once Pelican Island was set aside for the birds, first dozens and then hundreds of the refuges followed over the years until today more than 500 are spread across the country.

The day were visited the Pelican Island, it wasn’t hard to see why the refuges are vital — but also how they aren’t going to be enough to preserve birds like these. The refuge has its share of species, from the pelicans to egrets, herons, terns and spoonbills. But much of the 5,400-acres are silent. As is the case all along the Atlantic Coast, housing developments, golf course, shopping centers and road surround the small stretches of preserves like this one.

The slaughter of these birds has long since been halted, but the rapid growth in the places they rely on has added new pressures that are only increasing. It helps that pelicans have their own appeal, enough to generate many admirers as well as an occasional poem that celebrate their unique attributes. 

The pelican’s bill is the target of the good-natured ridicule in the famous limerick that’s long been credited to the humorist Ogden Nash, although versions of almost exactly the same poem can be traced back to several others, including a poet and newspaper editor named Dixon Lanier Merritt, who published his version in 1910.

Here’s the entire precious limerick:

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,

I’m damned if I know how the hell he can!”













One response to “Gawky, loved, ridiculed: Pelicans hold their own — plus lots of fish”

  1. So, I’ve been watching pelicans journey up and down the Virginia Beach coastline now for five years. I fear they are my favorite birds. As I’ve only ever seen them fly on by, hardly ever landing, I’d describe them as ancient and elegant!! Maybe a reflection of my aspirations!

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