The White Pelican is one of Alabama's most beautiful birds, and one of my favorites to attempt to photograph. Unlike its more common coastal cousin, the Brown Pelican, it can be much more difficult to approach and therefore a tougher subject for photography.
But on a recent outing I forgot about trying to get a good photo of White Pelicans and focused more on a life or death struggle before me.
I was below Walter F. George Lock and Dam in Henry County, ecstatic when I pulled up to the overlook to see 16 White Pelicans mixed in with more than 100 Double-Crested Cormorants, scores of gulls, and even an Osprey flying overhead. Even though it was only about 45 minutes before sunset and the birds were 80 yards or more away, I thought I had a chance for some good pictures.
But my attention was quickly caught by one of the pelicans that clearly was behaving abnormally. Instead of fishing with the others, it appeared to be struggling to swallow a very large fish. I watched through my camera lens as it tilted its head upwards time and again, but to no avail. There obviously was something large in its throat pouch, wriggling madly.
Then I noticed something odd; it looked like the fish had punched a hole in the pelican's throat pouch and was escaping -- backward. (Ouch; those fins have to hurt.) It took 10 minutes, but it finally worked its way completely out of the throat pouch. (See photos.)
Later, when I got the photos on the computer, I saw that the tear in the throat patch was already there, and that the wriggling fish just managed to find it. I have since read that such tears more often than not happen from pelicans eating fish that still have hooks in their mouths, but also occasionally from the birds just trying to swallow a fish too big for them.
If you look closely at the first picture in the accompanying photo file you can see the tear is already there. (Pardon the fuzziness; long zoom and way too cropped but I wanted to show the fish. By the way, I missed a chance to photo closer pelicans but I could not take my eyes off this.)
This prompted me to wonder if the White Pelican had much of a chance to survive in the wild long term with a tear in its pouch, so I called Anne Miller of Birmingham. Anne is the founder and former director of the Alabama Wildlife Center at Oak Mountain State Park, which does wonderful work in rehabilitating abandoned and injured native Alabama birds. (www.awrc.org) She also is president of the Alabama Ornithological Society. (www.aosbirds.org)
But Anne said she has not had much experience with pelicans -- not unexpected for someone who ran a center in the middle of the state -- and referred me to the folks at the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station in Miami. (pelicanharbor.org) Anne said she had witnessed Pelican Harbor rescue coordinator Carla Zepeda rescue a Brown Pelican with a torn throat pouch by luring it with fish -- called "chumming" -- until it was close enough to capture. (See photo.) This Brown Pelican's pouch tear was successfully sutured and it was returned to the wild.
Yaritza Acosta, rehabilitation manager at Pelican Harbor, told me that pelican with throat pouch tears are a regular problem for the center, and that large tears are "mostly fishing hook related." Smaller tears, she said, could be caused by a larger fish struggling to escape.
"If you can catch them and suture them, they tend to heal pretty well," she said.
"It is really important for fishermen to properly dispose of fishing hooks and line," she said. "They are a threat to pelicans and other birds."
So what was the chance for my White Pelican to survive without rehabilitation? After the large fish escaped, I saw it appear to swallow some smaller fish, so it might do OK if the tear does not get worse. Christopher Boykin, director of Pelican Harbor, said it was "probably good that the tear was small and near the front of the pouch." But many die because of such tears, underscoring the need for fishermen to take care to dispose of hooks and line properly.
American White Pelicans are among the heaviest flying birds in the world, and the largest have wingspans over 9 feet. Unlike Brown Pelicans, they are not primarily coastal birds, although you do see them along the coast. They roam far and wide, usually in large flights. In fact, most breed in central North America, in such states as North Dakota and across the border in Canada.
They are relatively common in Alabama in the fall, winter and early spring. I have seen huge rafts of hundreds and even thousands of White Pelicans at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur, and smaller groups at Henry Lock and Dam in Lowndes and Autauga counties and at the Walter F. George Dam in Henry County. I've seen small groups of eight or 10 at Lake Cameron at the Waters in Montgomery County, and two there as recently as last month. Last month I was in the woods in Bullock County, not near a large body of water that I knew of, and was surprised to see about 10 White Pelicans fly just over the treetops above me in their typical V-shaped pattern.
But while they fly in a V-pattern like Brown Pelicans, you won't see White Pelicans plunging into the water head first for fish like Brown Pelicans. White Pelicans "dabble" for fish, swimming and scooping them up in their capacious bill pouches. They've even been known to cooperatively herd schools of fish into shallower water where they can more easily catch them.
Both White and Brown Pelicans are beautiful birds, but the American White Pelican is especially beautiful in flight.
I can never see a pelican, white or brown, without thinking of that witty limerick that exists in several forms and goes something like:
"What a marvelous bird is the pelican,
His mouth can hold more than his belican.
He can hold in his beak,
Enough food for a week,
But I don't see how the helican."
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper editor and writer who now writes for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org. To see past columns, go to: http://www.wsfa.com/category/245234/ken-hares-natural-alabama
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