Fin & Feather Corner – Pelicans: White ones and brown ones – Rockport Pilot


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A mix of clouds and sun. High 93F. Winds SSE at 15 to 25 mph..
A few passing clouds. Low 83F. Winds SSE at 15 to 25 mph.
Updated: August 3, 2022 @ 7:34 am
Lunch Pail in Cove Harbor by John Martell.

Lunch Pail in Cove Harbor by John Martell.
Many years ago, I asked a now retired Game Warden (Steve Kennedy) if there were different species of pelicans. His response was “Yep – white ones and brown ones.” Of course, he was correct. There are only these two types of pelicans found in Texas – the American White Pelican and the Brown Pelican. There are eight species of pelicans found throughout the world. Both species found in Texas share some similarities, such as overall body shape, and large, pouched beaks. Pelicans have the largest bill of all birds. It can reach 18 inches in length. Underneath the bill, pelicans have a throat pouch that can hold three gallons of water. The pouch is mainly used for feeding, but it can be also used as a cooling device. Both are social birds that typically travel in flocks and breed in colonies.
The most obvious differences between these two species besides color are the size and method of hunting.
The Brown Pelican is smaller (about four feet tall with a seven-foot wingspan) than the bulkier white pelican that stands about four feet tall and sports a nine-foot wingspan. The Brown Pelican actually has a yellowish head when mature and the American White Pelican has a large bump on its top beak during mating season.
Their hunting methods are drastically different!
The White Pelicans often work together and paddle around to herd baitfish into a school then scoop up their prey. They drain the water from their beak pouches and swallow the fish whole.
The term for a group of pelicans is “squadron”, and seeing them fly in formation will make you think of an aerial raid.
Adding to this term, Brown Pelicans are dive-bombers! If you have the chance to watch them hunt, it is quite the sight to see. The impact of the Brown Pelican hitting the water stuns the fish, and then the dive-bomber scoops them up, drains their pouch, and swallows. Several adaptations protect Brown Pelicans as they dive, sometimes from as high as 60 feet. Air sacs beneath the skin on their breasts act like cushions. Also, while diving, a Brown Pelican rotates its body ever so slightly to the left. This rotation helps avoid injury to the esophagus and trachea, which are located on the right side of the bird’s neck. Pelicans have also learned that a steep dive angle reduces aiming errors caused by water surface refraction. We know that Brown Pelicans learn this behavior because adults are better marksmen than young birds. Seems birds, like fishermen, get better with practice!
American White Pelicans winter on the Gulf Coast and during the spring they migrate to their summer nesting areas in the Great Plains and the Great Basin. Brown Pelicans can be found in Rockport year-round. The Brown Pelican was listed as endangered in 1970 due to ingesting DDT (an insecticide) that had the awful side effect of making their eggs so brittle they would break. After the ban on DDT in 1972, and a reintroduction program, the Brown Pelican made a great comeback and has been removed completely from the list.
Both pelicans are easy to spot (White Pelicans can be found year-round, but mostly in the winter months), and are fun to photograph. Look around piers, the rock walls, Little Bay and harbors for easy access photo spots. They do make for some beautiful photographs! Interestingly enough, another retired Game Warden/ now avid birder John Leleux provided the photo of the Brown Pelican sitting on a pier. He has quite an eye for “shooting” our avian friends! No bag or possession limits apply! John Martell Photography provided the beautiful images of the American White Pelicans. If you haven’t had a chance, go see his amazing gallery of work at 302 S. Austin Street in downtown Rockport. Rockport offers opportunities for amazing photography just about everywhere you look! Don’t overlook the pelicans!
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