June 8, 2011

The Pelican Brief

The largest bird in Mexico is the American white pelican. In fact, it's the largest in the entire of North America. With a wingspan of up to 9ft (2.74 meters), they are quite the sight to see flying over.


As well as that impressive wingspan, the adult American white pelican has a body length of around 5ft 2" (1.58 meters). They weigh in at nearly 2 stone (25lbs; 11 kilo), thus you'd think it would be difficult for them to get air-borne at all. Not a bit of it. They soar in their thousands into Mexico each year, in great clouds of squawking whiteness. They are here for the fish.

Their destination are the great inland lakes, like Lake Chapala, which divides the states of Jalisco and Michoacán. This is the largest freshwater lake in Mexico, covering an area of approximately 424 square miles (1,100 km²); which is a good job, when you consider the size and number of its annual avian visitors.

The American white pelican settles over a vast area and immediately establishes itself at the top of the food chain. It swims on the surface of the water, gracefully ducking its head to scoop up fish in its long bill. Once it ventures into the shallows, then some community co-operation comes into play. The pelicans group together in a wide semi-circle, trapping fish before them. Each pelican then chases the fish right into the path of its neighbour. Thus group hunting means that everyone feasts.


American white pelicans can be spotted, in winter, along the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coastlines, but they will be in the estuaries or inland lakes. Occasionally a stray, blown off course or just plain lost, will be seen along the Caribbean.

They had previously been in decline, as agricultural pesticides seeped into their habitat, but they have recovered. Environmental treaties, covering their migratory route between Mexico and Canada, have saved them. They live up to 16 years, in the wild, with the adult females laying two eggs a year.


American white pelicans might look impressive, but for pure entertainment value, their native cousins, the brown pelican, wins outright. These are the great divers of the avian world, with death-defying plunges that leave on-lookers breathless with anticipation as to whether they will make it or not. The adults, at least, invariably do, but the adrenaline rush is worth the spectacle.

Here is a version in slow motion. The reality is seven times faster. They will begin the dive at 40-60mph. They will have picked up speed by the time they hit the water.

A substantial number of brown pelicans don't make it past their first year. They break their necks learning how to do that. Then they drown.

Though dwarved by the American white, the brown pelican is not a small bird. Its wingspan can stretch up to 8ft (2.5 meters). Its body grows up to 4ft 7" (1.8 meters). It weighs nearly a stone (12lb; 5.5kg); and it drops from the sky at around 60mph. Aren't you glad that you're not a fish?

As with many creatures, it's not us who are at risk from them, it's the other way around. The use of DDT, in agricultural pesticides, came close to rendering brown pelicans extinct in the 1960s. It took a ban on that to see their population recover. By 1988, they were removed from the endangered register of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, redesignated 'least concern' instead.

In fact, their numbers have grown so great this year, that it's causing comment across their migratory route. (This report from San Diego, in the USA, is common: Buzz Rising Over Local Pelican Population.)


As a marine bird, brown pelicans can be spotted anywhere on Mexico's 6,300 miles (10,143km) of coastline. They are on the Pacific, Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. The challenge is to try and film those dive-bombs. They're much too fast for the average camcorder holder to follow!

No comments:

Post a Comment

HostGator review