Rickubis Bird Page #9: Pelicans
This page was born 07/05/2015.  Rickubis designed it.  (such as it is.) Last update: 01/18/2017
Images and contents on this page copyright 2002-2017 Richard M. Dashnau 

Here are my other Brazos Bend and/or critter pages:
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Alligators at Brazos Bend State Park Introduction            Critters at Brazos Bend State Park Page 1
Snakes-nonvenomous 1-------------------------------------------Critters at Brazos Bend State Park Page 3
Snakes-nonvenomous 2-------------------------------------------------Insects, non-toxic
Snakes-nonvenomous 3------------------------------------------------Spiders
Birds-Waders Hawks & Eagles-Anhingas & Comorants - -------Lizards!--Turtles!
 Grebes -Herons  Bitterns  Misc. Birds
Vultures    Owls & Falcons

That's me on a trail (an old picture from today's (8/14/2015) perspective. Just about all animal life is interesting to me. But there are a few creatures that can capture all of my attention when they appear.  Pelicans are one of these.  When I see a flock of them fly by (or even just one), I feel as if transported back to an earlier epoch. Since I've been able to visit the coastal ecology on occasion, I've been able to see the pelicans.  I've captured video and photos of pelicans over the years, and I'll be placing some of them here. Older material will be lower on the page.  I hope visitors to this page enjoy the videos as much as I do. 
During one of my many visits to the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS), I viewed the new (at the time) Coastal Ecology display.  Among the information there was a description of the Brown Pelican (
Pelecanus occidentalis); and its history in Texas. I was surprised to learn that the population of Brown Pelicans had declined greatly, but had recovered.  I have since found more information on the internet such as:  https://tpwd.texas.gov/huntwild/wild/species/bpelican/  and  http://www.esasuccess.org/birds.shtml  and a pdf here https://tpwd.texas.gov/publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_bk_w7000_0013_eastern_brown_pelican.pdf .
An early threat to Brown Pelicans (and probably others as well) was from fisherman starting in the 1920s and 1930s. Fisherman killed pelicans to stop them from eating too many fish.  Scientific study found this concept invalid (Logically it made no sense. If there were thousands of pelicans in the first place, and they were a massive threat to fish--then why were there still so many fish? That argument can be made for just about any species. If species "X" is a threat to the environment, then why was species "X" and the environment doing ok before humans decided to take a look?) Later threats included "harvesting" of pelicans for their feathers (used for fashion). But the worst threat came near the 1940's with the use of DDT.  Pelicans were among the avian apex predators that were affected by the introduction of DDT into the environment. With every step up the food chain, contaminents in the environment become more concentrated.  Pelicans suffered, and could not reproduce. 
By the years 1967 -1974, there were only 10 breeding pairs of Pelicans in the entire state of Texas.  Just TEN!! IN ALL OF TEXAS!!  Near the time I was in high school, Pelicans almost disappeared from Texas...and maybe from everywhere else.  But laws were passed, and protections put into place, and now there are thousands of pelicans in Texas skies again.  That is WONDERFUL.   So-after 7/3/2015-I've taken an occasional road trip to go watch pelicans--just because I can; because they could have been wiped out 40 years ago, and I wouldn't be seeing them now. I'm sharing pictures and video clips on this page so folks who can't visit pelicans can see them here. Actually...
that's why I've shared most of the items on my website.

01/02/2017 I like to watch pelicans. White pelicans are very large. Pelicans usually catch fish. Brown pelicans often dive from quite high, and then surface with their catch (if successful).
Much larger White pelicans don't dive like this, but paddle along, and then dip down with their beaks to catch prey. But, to increase their chances of success White pelicans "group feed". That is, they form groups to herd schools of fish into concentrated schools which they can exploit.  I found a study on this behavior:  "Foraging Behavior of the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhyncos)in Western Nevada, by John G.T. Anderson 1991"  This had the most detail about what I watched on 1/2/2017.  
I was at Fiorenza park again.  On previous visits, I've seen White pelicans off in the distance, and also have seen them fly over me.  Today, I was able to watch them group-feeding, and I followed them for a few hours as they moved back-and-forth across the lake. Occasionally, they moved a bit closer, and then I filmed what I could.  Along with the White pelicans, there wasa great mob of cormorants.  Most references that I could find of cormorants foraging with White pelicans identify the cormorants as Double-Crested cormorants...so I'm going to guess that's what I saw here. I can't pick out the white outlines around the rear of the beak on these cormorants that I can see on Neotropic cormorants.  At Fiorenza park on January 2nd, 2017, I watched the pelicans at work.  These were relatively small foraging groups (maybe about 5 or 10 pelicans--but many cormorants) which works best according to the study. But at first there was a large group of 40 or so. The movement of the pelicans drives the fish, and when one starts to "dunk" for fish, then others follow suit. This is because the fish will disperse when pelicans start trying to grab them (according to the study). But I saw the cormorants diving around and through the formation of pelicans all the time (which seems to refute the previous statement about fish dispersal). After a few minutes of the pelicans dipping, most of the mass of cormorants would take off to another part of the lake. The pelicans might fly a short distance, or paddle some distance, and then they'd start swimming in formation again. Eventually the mass of cormorants would join them, and the process was repeated.  This is similar to the behavior described in the study, though the environment was a bit different. For instance, I didn't see the pelicans herd prey into shallows.  The images below are just 4 random photos I shot of the birds at work that day.


There was so much going on in the midst of the group that it was hard to pick out any single event. So...I just snapped a few images, and shot some video clips when I thought the pelicans
were actually foraging. I shot some high framerate footage to try to clarify some of the activity.  The edited footage is here . I really enjoyed watching all this. The study (and other sources) refer to occasional kleptoparasitism by the White pelicans--since they steal food from the cormorants and from each other. In the slow motion clips (each of which represent 2 seconds of "actual time" slowed down), I've caught a few unsuccesful attempts at theft by the pelicans.  I think I also found where a pelican had a cormorant trapped inside its beak. That is also in the same video clip.  I guess that perhaps the pelican and the cormorant went for the same fish; or that the cormorant tried to steal a fish from the pelican--which then just grabbed the cormorant. But, at the beginning, the other pelicans are clustered around the pelican with the trapped comorant in what appears to be attempts at stealing it from the pelican--or stealing my hypothetical fish from the cormorant inside the pelican's beak. It also looks like the pelicans are engaging in some kind of "thuggery" and smacking the cormorant around. But of course, that doesn't seem likely. In any case, I couldn't tell what eventually happened to the trapped cormorant amidst all the activity. The images below are frame grabs from the video that illustrate what I'm talking about.

    01 5 PELICANS GRABBING SOMETHING                              O2  5 PELICANS LIFTING SOMETHING               O3  5 PELICANS HAVE A CORMORANT!    



08/13/2015--  Quintana, Texas.   I was able to shoot some video at 210fps.  This time, I captured some clips of pelicans diving. A search of the internet produced a very interesting paper: "Prey capture by the Brown Pelican", by SCHREIBERR, . W., G. E. WOOLFENDENA, ND W. E. CURTSINGER. 1975  I found it here. It describes what happens while the pelican dives.  The images below only show the entry into the water. They are frames from the video clip here(wmv) . The clips
also show what happens after the dive. There are images of what happens underwater shown in the study.  Here is a description, taken from the study above: 1) head pulled back over shoulders and bend wings 2) head is kept stable for sighting down bill at target 3) keeping wings bent increases speed 4) wings are used to correct trajectory 5) when bill touches water, legs and wings pushed back,which thrusts bill forward. 6)Bill enters water with pouch contracted between lower jaw sections (flexible mandibular rami).  7)Jaw positioned so prey is between upper and lower jaws. When prey is in correct position, jaws are adjusted to surround it. 8) Upper jaw *may* also "herd" prey towards lower jaw which is allowed to stretch and collect everything. 9) Lower jaw parts allowed to expand and swell the gular pouch. The pouch can hold 10,000 cc of water (about 2.6 gallons) The entire pelican weighs about 2.9 kg (6,4 lb), but the filled pouch can weigh about 6.5 kg (14.3 lb).  10)The head is NOT moved to trap prey when full.The jaws close, keeping the filled pouch. 11) If pouch is empty, head and filled pouch are lifted straight out, allowing water to pour out the front of closed bill, which is pointing down. 12) If there is a fish inside, it is kept in by the closed bill. If there is prey caught, it can take 60 seconds to pour out the water while keeping prey inside the bill. then the head is tilted back, and the fish is swallowed. So, it is fairly easy to tell if a pelican has caught something by noting how quickly it surfaces and lifts its head after a dive. In the video I have linked above, I have 2 examples of "misses" and 2 examples of successful "catches".  For the latter two, the pelicans were not quite as cooperative, and were further away. 




Finally, this last image (above right) is from another video clip here(wmv) . I found the clip interesting because of what was going on behind the pelican. First, another pelican can be seen diving. Then, a couple fish appear in frame, and it looks like they have jumped at least a couple feet out of the water. They also look like sharks to me. Their bodies are sort of "oval" and not flat--and it appears that the tail has two lobes, but one is longer than the other. The shape of the pectoral and dorsal fins (from what I can see) appears to be sharklike.

07/025/2015--  Quintana, Texas.  Once again, I went out to look for the usual things.  I was able to shoot some video at 120fps.  This time, I captured some clips of pelicans grooming, and flying. The first 11 images (below) are frames from the first video clip linked here(wmv) . These are the groups of Pelicans performing various grooming functions. One of the most interesting was this "stretching" of their pouch. As the images show, a pelican tilts back its head and apparently stretches out the pouch by doing this. After the head-raising, the pelicans then pull their head down, forming a strong curve in their neck. This seems to allow for the pouch to be pushed "inside-out". It's a very odd sight, since it appeared to me that the neck showing inside the pouch was bare, with no skin showing. According to the Sibley Guide to Bird Behavior, pelicans to this to keep the skin flexible. There is another part of the clip that shows a pelican scratching its head with its foot. It keeps balance well, while reaching under its wing to scratch. It also turns its head and moves it towards the scratching foot.



The last image (below right) is a frame  from the second video clip linked here(wmv) . In this clip, a pelican flies towards me, attempts to land, and then aborts the landing to fly
past the group. Then, in the second part, a pelican lands among the group.


07/04/2015--  Quintana, Texas.  Once again, I went out to look for dolphins and pelicans...and whatever else shows up. This time I shot some video at 120fps.  I could STILL watch pelicans soaring and diving all day...and I suppose I've done that. This time, I captured some clips of pelicans diving for fish. The first image (below left) is a frame from the first part of the video clip linked here(wmv) . The remaining images are from the second part of the clip, and show the part where a dolphin can be seen in the background as the pelican dives.  I have more clips showing dolphins, but the clips are very short, and don't show much of the dolphin's activities. Some day, I'll try to post some of those clips.



02/21/2015--  Quintana, Texas.  Once again, I went out to look for dolphins and pelicans...and whatever else shows up. This time I shot some video at 210fps.  I could watch pelicans soaring and diving all day...and I suppose I've done that. I got lucky
and captured this Brown Pelican taking off from the water--at 210 fps. Note how it lifts its wings clear of the water first, then gains speed by pushing with both feet in a "leaping-paddling" motion.  The image below left is a frame from the video clip linked here(wmv) .   Next, there is a clip showing a Brown Pelican (with the bright mating colors on its head) flying by, also filmed at 210 fps. The image below center is a frame from the video clip linked here(wmv) .  

Finally, there is a clip showing a Brown Pelican (with the bright mating colors on its head) flying high, then slanting down to skim just above the water, also filmed at 210 fps. The image below right is a frame from the video clip linked here(wmv) .  The last clip is a great example of a Pelican using "ground effect" or "compression" gliding.  As the Pelican gets close to the surface of the water, the air is compressed under its body and extended wings. This causes the air under the wings to become more dense, and this increased density helps hold the Pelican aloft.  Therefore, it is using less energy to fly. Notice that the Pelican has to rise a little higher to allow room for the occasional wing-flap. Ground-effect doesn't start until the height above the ground is equal to or less than the wing span.  Above that distance, there is no air compression or increased density.


05/11/2013--  Quintana, Texas.  Many folks (especially "birders") like to visit Quintana, and specifically the Neotropic Bird Sanctuary there.  While I do like to walk the sanctuary occasionally, I really like to go to the rock jetty that is just a little past the Sanctuary. The jetties protect and show one of the openings to the Intracoastal Waterway. I can (and do) easily spend hours there watching the various forms of life as they work this area. Pelicans are there, too. On this day, I happened along when the Pelicans were hunting (fishing? foraging?) and was able to capture some video.  Click here(wmv) or here(mp4) to see 2 minutes' worth of Pelicans diving--filmed at 120fps. 


12/01/2012--  I was leaving a beignet shop in Chinatown when I notice a formation of large birds flying overhead. When I looked closer (I grabbed a pair of binoculars out of the car); I saw that they were Pelicans! Big, White Pelicans. 
As I watched, they moved off a little, and then swooped down to land.  That really caught my attention, and I got in the car and drove towards where I'd last seen the pelicans. Then I realized I was heading towards Arthur Storey Park, 
and the large water-retention area there.  When I got there, I didn't see the small flock of Pelicans swimming. Instead, I saw a mass of white birds on the island. The entire island was covered with White Pelicans! And...a large number of
Cormorants, and a few other wading birds. I couldn't stay long, but seeing this group of big birds was an unexpected treat.



11/24/2012--  I finally made the trip to Quintana, Texas. I'd heard about it from many of the birders that I'd talked to at BBSP.  So, I drove South on 288...and made it to Quintana. I didn't stay for long, but I found the jetty (this is just one side of the channel). And, I saw some Brown pelicans flying.  Here are 2 pictures of them gliding by. I really enjoy watching the pelicans as they glide just above the surface of the water.


01/04/2009--  I was walking along 40 Acre Lake trail at BBSP when a large flying bird caught my attention. It was white, and I thought it was a Great Egret. But, something about it didn't seem right, so I looked at it through the binoculars. It was was a White Pelican! Pelicans hardly ever visit the park, and I watched as it flew out over Pilant Lake. I just assumed it was passing through. I climbed the Observation Tower to see what I could. It was pretty cold, and the breeze up at the top is pretty strong. My eyes teared profusely, making difficult to see in some directions. When I looked out over Pilant Lake, I found the Pelican again, and so I was able to observe it through my camera. The full optical zoom (20x) didn't help as much as I'd have liked, so I tried the digital zoom (100x), and it worked surprisingly well. Today's RICKUBISCAM (see RICKUBISCAM 01/04/09 below) is a frame capture from one of the video clips of the Pelican foraging in the lake. I was surpised at the leisurely dipping that the Pelican was doing. I found out (according to The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior) that this is common behavior for the White Pelican. The Brown Pelican feeds on saltwater prey, and dives onto potential food; while the White Pelican (the one I saw) prefers freshwater prey, and does this dipping behavior. The Pelican's beak with that large pouch (gular pouch) is used only to catch food--not to store it. The pouch is sensitive enough (I don't know the mechanism) so the Pelican can detect food even in darkness. The White Pelican can also have a wingspan of about 9 feet!  I wanted to try to catch some photos or videos of the Pelican taking off, but the cold finally made me turn out of the wind, but I at least shot some video footage of the Pelican foraging. An edited version of some of the clips can be seen  here (wmv 16.5 mb).
As I was looking the other way, some park visitors called up to me, and I turned in time to see the Pelican flying right towards the tower. I turned the camera around, and shot a couple bursts of photos. These are mostly blurred ( it's hard to focus on a flying bird). I did what I could with one of the images, and it at least shows this striking bird. (See Pelican Flyby below)

                                          PELICAN FLYBY                                             RICKUBISCAM 01/04/09

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