Bird Watcher's General Store

Gulls Will Steal Food From Pelicans
11/21/08

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Dear Bird Folks,

I live in Gulfport, Florida, the land that time forgot. I have been watching gulls and pelicans for years and there is one thing in their relationship that I can't figure out. Each time the pelican dives, the gull lands right next to it; yet I've never seen the pelican offer the gull anything. Is the gull learning from the pelican, or is it following the pelican around just to be annoying?

- Blaise, Gulfport, FL

No, Blaise,

Time hasn't forgotten Gulfport; it just can't get there. I'll explain. Two years ago I was doing some birding around Sarasota, FL. After Sarasota, I was planning on heading over to Gulfport, perhaps to visit you, but mostly to check out the birds at nearby Fort De Soto Park. Well, that all changed the moment my eyes caught a glimpse of what you people call the "Sunshine Skyway Bridge." OMG! For those of you who don't know, the Sunshine Skyway Bridge is, at five-and-a-half miles long, the word's longest bridge of its type (really). It is also seven hundred miles high (maybe). Suddenly I didn't care if Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and California Condors were breeding at Fort De Soto Park. There was no way I was driving on that bridge. I was more than happy to stay on the Sarasota side and I think "time" has decided to do the same thing. Time hasn't forgotten Gulfport; it just refuses to cross that bridge, and I don't blame it.

Other than living near a scary bridge, Blaise, you seem like a very sweet person. You would have to be sweet to think that a pelican would "offer" a gull any of its hard-caught food. Pelicans, like most creatures in nature, aren't into the sharing scene. Obtaining food in general is just too difficult and for the Brown Pelican obtaining food is especially hard. Most of the world's pelicans hunt by swimming on top of the water, scooping up fish as they go. The Brown Pelican's foraging methods are much more spectacular, physically demanding, and often dangerous. There, have I significantly built up the drama?

While soaring above the water the Brown Pelican scans for any fish that may wander close to the surface. The moment food is spotted, the bird hurls its large body (weighing eight pounds, with a wingspan approaching seven feet) straight down. The birds will dive from as high as sixty feet, making a huge splash and hitting the water with such force that fish may be stunned by the impact. The whole process is hard on the birds. If you and I had to get our fish the same way Brown Pelicans do, the only fish we would eat would be those smiley goldfish that Pepperidge Farm makes.

To protect itself from serious injury, a pelican has air sacks just below its skin. The air sacks help cushion the blow, while also giving the pelican that lovely full-figured look. A pelican will also twist its body to the left just before it hits the water. This move helps protect the right side of the neck, which contains the trachea and esophagus, two parts the bird doesn't want crushed for some reason.

Once below the surface the pelican opens its huge mouth, hoping to scoop up a fish or two. In addition to fish, the bird also scoops up a considerable amount of water, three gallons to be exact. Since three gallons is two more than its belican hold, the pelican must dump the water before it is able to eat the fish. The bird rids its pouch water by keeping its head down, and slowly letting the water drain out of the sides of its bill. Once the water has drained out the bird flips its head back, and down the hatch go the fish. Meanwhile, Mr. Gull is watching the pelican's every move. It is hoping that somewhere during the water removal/head-flipping process the pelican messes up and a fish gets away. If that happens it will swoop in and grab itself a meal, before the pelican recovers the lost goods.

Several species of gulls and terns are known to benefit from careless pelicans. They either grab escaping fish or steal them right out of the pelicans' massive bill. Birds that steal food from other birds are called "kleptoparasites." If you like that word you'd better remember it because I'm never going to write it again. It took me fifteen tries to type it correctly and I think I may have melted the spell checker on my computer.

Before you think poorly about the gulls and terns for stealing from the humble pelican, you should know that some Brown Pelicans are also klepa...kepa...klpt...crooks. Not only will they steal from other birds, such as herons and storks, but they will also steal from fishermen, which totally upsets the local anglers. Babies. They can go eat smiley goldfish.

The Brown Pelican population is doing fine, Blaise. I wouldn't worry too much if gulls take an occasional fish from them. If I were you, I'd worry about that scary bridge that's near you. That bridge gives me the creeps. It's not quite as creepy as the word "belican," but it's close.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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