The mighty pelican is a common sight as you walk along the Xcalak beach. But did you know? The pelican is arguably the most ideally evolved sea bird in existence. A peaceful drifter, daring diver, and strong flier, Xcalak’s resident pelican is the Brown Pelican, and it’s well suited to its idyllic coastal life.
They fish the easy way
The only bird to sport a neck pouch (also called a “gular pouch”), the pelican is perfectly adapted to fishing. As it swims around, all a pelican needs to do when it’s hungry is dip its fishing-net beak into the water, scoop up the fish, drain the water, and chow down!
Contrary to popular belief (and popular children’s books) a pelican does not use its neck pouch to store food for later.
They can dive from serious heights without dying
A pelican can spot a fish while gliding on the breeze, up to 70 feet above sea level. And when it spots that tasty morsel, it dives straight down, beak-first to get it. A lesser bird would break its neck or destroy its body, breaking bones as it hits the water from that height, but not Xcalak’s Brown Pelican!
Inflating specially adapted air pockets under its skin around its neck, a pelican protects its fragile vertebrae from impact, and inflates its neck pouch to slow its progress once it hits the water.
Proper form is also essential for pelican daredevil-diving – putting its wings straight back behind it prevents fractures and helps keep its dive accurate. Pelicans practice diving from the time they’re young to perfect their sniper-like technique.
They don’t just eat fish
The Brown Pelican does mostly eat fish (and the protected waters of the Xcalak National Reef Park teems with fresh, delicious fish). But pelicans aren’t fussed if there aren’t any fish around because they can eat a whole lot more than that.
Pelicans might not look like deadly killers, but their indiscriminate eating makes them a bird to be reckoned with. Lizards, frogs, crabs, lobsters, pigeons, and even other small birds are all potential pelican-grub. If a pelican can fit it down their throat, it’s a candidate for pelican lunch.
They haven’t changed in 30 million years
Talk about evolutionary apex – early pelican fossils date back to prehistoric times. And nature clearly took a break on the whole evolution thing – the features of today’s Brown Pelican are virtually unchanged.
It was an efficient, effective creature in ancient times, and it’s an efficient, effective creature today. The only other animal on earth to have evolved to such perfection is the crocodile.
They soar like eagles
Masters of the art of flying, pelicans soar through the air with as little effort as possible – their large wingspan allows them to take flight on a breath of air. They can fly over 100 miles in a single day, soar up to 10,000 feet, or gracefully skim the surface of the water.
Though they’re refined and talented flyers, pelicans are particularly awkward on land and beach. Unsteady on their feet, it’s clear they’re meant to be in the air or on the water.
They fought their way off the endangered list
DDT was bad news for just about everyone in the food chain. Used to treat soil, rainwater washed the chemical into waterways where it got into small fish. Whatever ate those small fish was poisoned by DDT. That includes pelicans.
Brown Pelicans didn’t die outright from ingesting DDT, but it made the shells of their eggs weak, meaning fewer young pelicans survived. Brown Pelicans became endangered and were nearly wiped out.
The DDT ban in 1972 helped restore the Brown Pelican population, and in 2009 they were taken off the endangered list. A tough comeback for a tough bird.
Learn about more of Xcalak’s impressive avian life Birdwatching in Xcalak