Let's Talk About Birds: Brown pelicans


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This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.

From a 7-foot wingspan to a comically oversized bill, almost everything about a pelican seems larger than life. With their heads tucked close to their bodies, a flock of pelicans coming in to land is akin to a formation of B-52 bombers.

Most pelicans fish from the surface of the ocean. They use their tremendous bills -- outfitted with a stretchy pouch of skin in the lower jaw -- to gulp mouthfuls of water. Up to three gallons of water can be held in the pouch at one time. The pelican slowly squeezes the water out of its beak, and what remains (if the pelican is successful) is a bounty of fish to eat.

Because the pelican's stomach can hold three times less than what its stretchy beak can, the pelican swallows a few fish at a time. Leftover fish are stored in the bird's esophagus to be consumed later.

Seven species of pelicans are distributed throughout the world. North America has two species -- the American white pelican and the brown pelican. Brown pelicans are the smallest of the species. Silvery gray and brown, they "plunge dive" after fish, folding their wings and dropping from flight into the water beak first to grab a meal.

Most visitors to the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts can observe flocks of these stately birds in the wild. However, this was not always the case. Brown pelicans almost went extinct in the 1970s.

The use of a pesticide called DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) had a great impact on the Brown Pelican. The pesticide accumulated in their bodies and caused them to lay eggs with fragile eggshells. During incubation, the fragile eggs would crack under the weight of the adults.

Thanks in part to Pittsburgh native Rachel Carson and her groundbreaking book, "Silent Spring," legislation was passed that banned the use of DDT throughout the United States. Brown pelicans, along with many other species, made a comeback.

Additional conservation efforts enabled brown pelicans to begin thriving in much of their former range. Today, they are no longer listed on the federal endangered species list.

The National Aviary is home to two brown pelicans that reside in our wetlands exhibit. Ralph was hatched in Maryland and was found as a chick in a nest during a cold snap. He suffered frostbite on his toes and wingtips and was raised around humans. Dexter was struck by a boat propeller in Louisiana (where the brown pelican is the state bird) and has damage to his bill and feet that makes it difficult for him to scoop water and feed.

Ralph and Dexter rely heavily on humans for food and would not survive on their own in the wild. They play a very important role at the National Aviary as ambassadors of their species, allowing visitors a close look at their majesty and reminding people of the impacts -- positive and negative -- that humans can have on the natural world.

Brown pelicans are true American originals, birds you will never see outside of the Americas. During the weekend of Jan. 5-6, Ralph and Dexter will help the National Aviary to celebrate brown pelicans and all the "Grand Birds of the Americas."

Show your support and care by making a $1 donation to toss fish to their open bills, and discover many other grand American species such as flamingo, ibis, eagles and toucans. For more information, visit www.aviary.org.

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