They swoop out of the sky, sometimes in tight formation, sometimes solo. They choose their line, then glide effortlessly along the updrafts of unbroken waves, soaring skyward just as the wave closes out. Their grace and style is the envy of all homo sapien wave riders. Pelecanus occidentalis californicus, or the California brown pelican, is one of the most talented surfers in the animal kingdom.
In 1970, the California brown pelican was listed as an endangered species because of harm done by pesticides. The insecticide DDT was outlawed in 1972, and the pelican population of California has since increased. This past spring, the brown pelican made front-page local news as extra large numbers of them overtook the San Diego coastline. Biologists were never clear as to the causes of this profusion. Some said it was an abundance of schooling fish in local waters, while others hypothesized a problem with breeding grounds in Baja Mexico. Taken off the endangered species list in 2009, the large number of brown pelicans represents the general health of our marine ecosystems.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the brown pelican is the smallest of seven pelican species, although they are one of California’s largest sea birds. Adults average 4 feet from the tip of the bill (itself 12 inches long) to tail, with a 7-foot wingspan and weigh about 8 pounds. California brown pelicans range throughout all of California and much of Baja Mexico with nesting populations on the Channel Islands and in Baja.
Along with their wave-riding skills, brown pelicans exhibit another interesting water behavior: the plunge dive. Flying in upwards of 60 feet above the ocean’s surface, they spot schools of anchovy, sardine and mackerel. Once spotted, the pelican spreads its wings for maximum control and dive bombs into the school, opening its bill with the spectacular impact. The large pouch, or gular, under the bill fills with water and hopefully a large haul of fish. Water is then drained out, leaving the meal.
Brown pelicans are the only plunge divers among all pelican species. When observing them dive bomb again and again, I often wondered how they were not harmed by the drastic impact with the water. It turns out that their vertebrates are formed specifically to withstand such forces.
People are often surprised to hear that the pelican can hold more in its mouth than in its stomach. In 1910, humorist Dixon Lanier Merritt wrote, “Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican! His bill holds more than his belican. He can take in his beak enough food for a week. But I’m darned if I know how the helican.”
The next time you see Pelecanus occidentalis californicus gliding across a wave or plunge diving for dinner, appreciate the battles they have fought for survival. They are a vital and beautiful factor in our beloved marine ecosystem.
Although their conservation status is now listed as “least concern,” the California brown pelican continues to be closely monitored. Our care and respect will help future generations experience the majesty of our wave-riding, avian friend.