Pelican chicks fly from the nest at 11 or 12 weeks of age. Once fledged, they are on their own; rarely have I seen an adult feeding a young bird away from the nest. The youngsters, however, frequently join the flights of their elders and learn—by imitation and by the lessons of trial and error—those things a pelican has to know.
A young bird must quickly become adept at fishing in order to survive. To catch fish, pelicans dive headfirst into the water, usually from an elevation of 10 to 35 feet, though occasionally from as high as 75 feet. Preying upon a tight school of fish swimming near the surface, a pelican will scud along barely rising off the water.
Most prey—menhaden, pinfish, thread herring—are caught in the pouch a foot or two below the surface (pages 116-17). The pelican then sits on the water with bill closed and pointing down, allowing the water to drain out of the pouch. Finally, with a toss of his head, he swallows the fish.
A pelican never stores fish in the pouch, Dixon Merritt’s unforgettable limerick notwithstanding:
A wonderful bird is the pelican, His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak .
Food enough for a week, But I’m damned if I see how the helican. Each summer since 1969 I have joined other biologists in South Carolina and Florida in banding and color-marking nestling pelicans to learn more about their migration and movements during the post-breeding dispersal. We leg-band them with numbered U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service aluminum markers and attach plastic streamers on a leg or wing, a different color for each nesting area, for ease in identifying a bird’s origin. Newspaper alerts and posters on fishing piers elicited more than 1,500 reports of color-marked birds sighted between 1969 and 1973.
Pelicans in South Carolina move south during the fall and spend the winter and spring months on the east coast of Florida and in the keys. Birds I banded in Tampa Bay have been sighted primarily south along the Florida west coast and in the keys.
Recovery of banded birds allows us to check off milestones of their life span. We don’t yet know how long a brown pelican can live, but one bird was recovered at age 25. Most banded birds found dead are less than a year old. Recoveries of birds between 5 and 20 years old are numerous.