email a friend iconprinter friendly iconPelican Grace
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Many white pelicans spend winters in the company of brown pelicans, their saltwater cousins. In coastal areas, a watcher from shore can compare the two species' feeding styles. The brown folds its wings in flight and plunges into the water at speeds up to 40 miles an hour. White pelicans feed while afloat, large flocks often fishing cooperatively in the ornithological version of Olympics-style synchronized swimming. Birds herd schools of small fish into coves or form a circle that gradually tightens like a seine net. Then the pelicans dip their massively pouched bills into the water, scooping up prey in a frenzy of thrusting, paddling, and splashing. A pelican with a mouthful of minnows crooks its neck to let water drain from its pouch before swallowing—which is why it doesn't matter that, in the words of Dixon Merritt's famous limerick, "his bill will hold more than his belican."

Once, American white pelicans were commonly shot by anglers who considered them competitors for fish. Government agencies disrupted nesting colonies, believing pelicans a threat to sport fisheries. The situation improved after studies showed that white pelicans catch mostly nongame species; better protection has contributed to a steady rise in numbers since the 1960s.

In recent years, though, a series of setbacks has biologists watching. West Nile virus, to which chicks seem especially vulnerable, has caused partial nesting failures in several white pelican colonies. At Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota, home until recently to the largest colony in the United States, adult birds in 2004 abandoned eggs and newly hatched young for reasons still unknown. In 2005, something—perhaps prolonged cold, wet weather—caused mass mortality of young still in the nest. Two seasons that could have produced 15,000 or more pelicans on the refuge may have seen only a few hundred successfully fledge.

The problems may be only temporary, though, barely significant for a species that lives about 20 years. The genus Pelecanus, which encompasses all eight of the world's pelican species (or seven, if a certain Peruvian pelican is only a subspecies), has existed in more or less its present form for around 20 million years—far longer than the time since the first protohumans reared up on their hind legs to scan the African savanna. While to our anthropomorphic eye the pelican seems both goofy clown and graceful flier, the truth is that it's simply going about its business the way it always has, fitting precisely into its unique ecological niche.

The pelican inspires laughter and wonder, and, maybe even more, a kind of affectionate empathy: After all, who among us hasn't at times felt awkward and unlovely, and yet imagined that—given room to stretch our wings—we just might be beautiful?

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