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What is a Pelican?

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  • Written By: Soo Owens
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 31 October 2016
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The pelican is a waterbird known for its distinctive throat pouch, which it uses to catch its food. There are eight recorded species of pelicans that have been discovered all over the world. Pelicans primarily inhabit areas near large bodies of water, both fresh and salt, as well as lakes and rivers.

The eight species of pelican make up the family Pelecanidae. The Pelecanidae share the order Pelecaniformes with their distant relatives the boobies, cormorants, darters, frigatebirds, gannets, and tropicbirds. Members of this order live colonially and the individual fowl are monogamous. Their offspring are born helpless and require constant attention.

There are generally considered to be two groups of pelicans. The first has gray or brown plumage and nests in trees or, in the case of the Peruvian Pelican, on rocks. The second group is made up of those pelicans with white plumage that nest on the ground.

The Brown Pelican is the smallest member of the Pelecanidae and averages 6 pounds (2.75 kg), is 3.5 feet (1.06 m) long and has a 6 ft (1.83 m) wingspan. The Dalmatian Pelican is the largest averaging 33 pounds (15 kg) and 5.8 ft (1.8 m) in length, with a wingspan of up to 10 feet (3 m). The average bill can hold up to three gallons (11.5 liters) of water.

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Pelicans are carnivores, consuming mostly fish, but also amphibians, crustaceans, and, seldom, smaller birds. They scoop fish out of the water with the large throat pouch attached at the bottom of the bill, and many species also use cooperative fishing methods when hunting. The birds form into a straight line or U-shape, flying low over the surface of the water while beating their wings against the surface. This drives the fish into shallow waters where the pelicans can easily scoop their prey out of the water.

The Brown Pelican is the exception to this tendency, as they feed primarily on menhaden, a type of herring, and use a more aggressive hunting style of diving and snaring its prey in its bill. The only other species observed utilizing this method are the Peruvian Pelican and the Australian Pelican, though the occurrence is rare.

Pelicans do not store their captive fish in their pouches. Instead, they feed immediately. If the pelican has young to feed then it opens its mouth and lets the young bird feed from its throat, where it has access to regurgitated nutrition.

The Brown Pelican was once considered endangered in North America. Due to DDT and dieldrin pesticide exposure, the eggs of these pelicans would become damaged and unable to sustain maturation of the embryo. The use of DDT pesticides was banned in 1972, and since then, the Brown Pelican has managed to repopulate and are no longer considered an endangered species. The Dalmatian Pelican is the rarest species of pelican, followed closely by the Spot-billed. The Australian and White Pelicans are the next two most common species.

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cmsmith10
Post 2

@gardenturtle- Pelicans are very smart birds. When they catch their fish, they tip their pouches over so that they can drain the water out and then they eat the fish. Some pelicans, particularly the American white pelican, can hold up to 3 gallons of water in its bill at one time.

GardenTurtle
Post 1

Since the pelicans eat their fish immediately, do they not end up swallowing a lot of water, as well?

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