Pelicans are a widely distributed species of bird, they are found in all continents except Antarctica. There are seven species divided into two groups, the white ground nesters and the grey/brown tree nesters.
The Australian Pelican is a large water bird 1.6 to 1.8 m long, 2.3 to 2.5 m wingspan and 4 to 13 kgs in weight. Its plumage is white with black primary feathers; younger birds have brown primary feathers. Pelicans are good swimmers, they have short, strong legs with webbed feet. Their tails are short, but their wings are long, designed for gliding and soaring. They can fly great distances and have been recorded at altitudes of 3000 metres. The characteristic pouched bill is pink in colour and is the largest avian bill in the world (the longest recorded Australian Pelican bill is 49 cms with a capacity of 13 litres). An unusual feature of the Pelican is a layer of bubbles under the skin of the torso, which assists with flotation and insulation.
Australian Pelicans are sociable birds and may sometimes be seen hunting together in a line to herd fish together. Small fish are scooped up in their expanded throat pouch, which must be drained before the fish can be swallowed. Larger fish are caught with the tip of the bill then tossed into the air and swallowed head first. Some species of pelican plunge dive for fish, but the Australian Pelican does not usually use this hunting technique.
Although pelicans may eat amphibians, crustaceans and even smaller birds stories of them eating small dogs are an urban myth.
Something unusual about our populations of coastal pelicans is that baby pelicans are never seen. This is because pelicans nest far away in inland or remote locations in large breeding colonies.
Pelicans are opportunistic; they have no particular migration or breeding pattern, but congregate in large breeding colonies when and where conditions are favourable. Huge breeding colonies of coastal dwelling pelicans suddenly appear in remote temporarily flooded inland lakes and waterways. One of the most dramatic examples occurs in the Lake Eyre basin. Usually Lake Eyre is a dry salt lake, but about once every thirty years it floods then teams with fish and crustaceans which makes it a short-lived, but ideal breeding site for pelicans. Thousands of pelicans from all over Australia fly from the coast over the harsh, dry desert to breed beside Lake Eyre when it floods, then the pelican population disperses. Despite decades of research, the way in which the pelicans can detect when far off waterways are flooded, and then locate them, is not understood, although there are theories about sonic and magnetic perception.
Entanglement in fishing gear is a major problem for pelicans. You can help pelicans by responsible fishing and keeping litter out of our waterways. Discarded fishing gear is particularly dangerous, so if you see some of this litter why not bin it, you may be saving a pelican’s life. (Further information www.seabirdrescue.org)
- Written by Nadia O'Carroll