Pelican, a genus of large, web-footed birds (pelecanus, Linn.). The bill is very long, nearly straight, and much depressed; the upper mandible has an elevated ridge, becoming flat toward the end, the tip being strong, hooked, and acute; the lower mandible is wider at the base than the upper, and its branches are united only at the tip; the nostrils are scarcely perceptible, in the lateral groove at the base; the wings are moderate, the' second quill the longest, and the secondaries nearly as long as the primaries; the tail is broad, short, and rounded; the tarsi short and stout, covered with reticulated scales; all four of the toes on the same plane, the hind one turned more or less inward, and all connected by broad webs, the middle toe the longest. The head is moderate and crested, the neck long and slender, and the feet toward the middle of the body; under the lower jaw, and extending to the throat, is a loose, naked membranous pouch capable of great distention, which is used as a scoop net for fish; around the eyes and base of the bill are bare spaces.
The skeleton is remarkable for the great extent of its air cavities, the bones weighing less than 2 lbs.; from these the air penetrates into the areolar tissue under the skin, making the body for its bulk exceedingly light; the oesophagus is very capacious and the stomach small. The species are not numerous, but are found in most parts of the world, and most abundantly in tropical regions, frequenting both the seacoast and interior lakes and rivers; they are very voracious, feeding entirely on fishes, and the pouch is capacious enough to hold fish sufficient for the dinner of half a dozen men; they are good swimmers, divers, and fliers, and can perch easily on trees. In the morning and evening they leave their roosting places in flocks of about a dozen, and fly to their fishing grounds; they fish until satisfied, swallowing their prey on the spot, and retiring with a full crop to some solitary place to digest it. Their flight is at times elevated, and at others they skim near the surface, balance themselves when they see a fish, and fall headlong upon it with the apparent risk of breaking their necks. - The white pelican (P. onocrotalus, Linn.), the onocrotalus of Pliny but not of the Greeks, is between 5 and 6 ft. long, and 12 to 13 ft. in expanse of wings; the general color is white, with rosy tinges, and the primaries are black; the upper mandible is bluish with red and yellow tints, and the hook on the end is bright red; the pouch is yellow.
It is found in S. E. Europe, Asia, and Africa, sometimes coming as far W. as Germany, but not to Great Britain. The nest is generally made in a rude manner on inaccessible rocks, near fresh or salt water, and the eggs are two to four; it builds sometimes on trees remote from water; the young are fed by the regurgitated food of the parents; this operation is rendered easier by pressing the pouch and lower mandible against the breast, and the contrast of the red hook of the bill against the white of the breast probably gave rise to the poetic idea of the ancients that the female pelican nourished her young with her blood. It is very long-lived; in captivity it will eat rats and small mammals as well as fish; its flesh was forbidden to the Jews, and few would care to eat it, as it is very rank, fishy, and oily; it is said to have been tamed and employed in fishing, like the cormorant among the Chinese. Its pouch has been used to make caps and bonnets and tobacco bags; the Siamese make of it strings for musical instruments, and the Nile and other boatmen use it with the lower jaw attached for baling water from their canoes; it will hold in the living bird 10 to 12 quarts of water, and hence the pelican is called " river camel" by the Egyptians. A variety or species (P. crispus, Bruch.) in S. E. Europe is somewhat larger, of a more grayish white, with curled feathers on the back and sides of the head; these collect in flocks, extend their line in the form of a crescent, and by flapping their wings and plunging into the water drive a shoal of fish into a small and shallow space, speedily obtaining a full supply. - The American white or rough-billed pelican (P. erythro-rhynchus, Gmel.; genus cyrtopelecanus, Keich.) is about 6 ft. long, with an alar extent of between 8 and 9 ft., and a weight of 17 or 18 lbs.
It much resembles the P. onocrotalus, being of a general white color, tinged with roseous in the breeding season; the primaries are black and the iris white; the head and neck are covered with slender, small, and downy feathers, elongated into a crest on the nape and running down the back of the neck; on the body generally the feathers are narrow and long; the crest is yellow, the eyes very bright, and in spring the legs, feet, bill, and pouch are orange red, fading to yellowish in autumn. The bill is 14 in. long, and the sac besides this length extends 8 in. on the throat, being 7 in. deep at the widest part; the wings are long, narrow, and rounded, and the primaries much curved; the tail consists of 24 feathers; the horny and fibrous ridge on the upper mandible of the males increases with age, and is used as a means of defence in their battles; the females are rather smaller than the males. . Abundant during the winter in Florida, it is found in summer in the interior of the fur countries as far as lat. 61° N.; it does not occur on the coast of the middle and northern states, as the course of migration is along the great inland rivers.
They do not dive for their prey either from the wing or the surface of the water, but thrust the head under as far as the neck will allow, feeding mostly in shallow places, as they swim along against wind and current with the wings partially extended and the upper mandible only of the bill appearing above the surface; they are sometimes seen in company with the brown species, next described; occasionally they drive fish to shallows, where they can easily scoop them up with the pouch. They destroy a great number of small fish; the flesh is rank and fishy, and unfit for food. The sac is expanded by the opening of the bill* and vice versa. They breed in the fur countries, but not generally in the south like the next species; they are found in the Rocky mountains and in California. - The brown pelican (P. fuscus, Linn.; genus onocrotalus, Wagler) differs from the last species in habits, size, and colors; it is smaller, being only about 56 in. long, with an extent of wings of 7 ft. and a weight of 7 or 8 lbs. The bill is 13 1/2 in. long, grayish white, tinged with dusky and .with spots of carmine; there is no ridge on the upper mandible; the orbital space is blue, the crest light chestnut red, and the tail has only 22 feathers.
The head and sides of the neck are white; the hair-like feathers of the forehead yellow; the neck behind and in front below dark chestnut brown; back, wings, and tail grayish ash, margined with dusky, the last with shafts white at the base and black at the end; primaries brownish black; below dark brownish ash, with narrow longitudinal white lines on the sides; iris white; legs and feet black. The female is like the male, but the feathers of the head are more rigid; the young are dusky brown. It is found from North Carolina to Texas, and on the coast of California; it is a constant resident in Florida, . and is now rare N. of St. Augustine; it goes south far beyond the limits of the United States; it is not seen on fresh water beyond the reach of the tide, like the white pelican. The flight, though apparently heavy, is well sustained, performed by alternate easy flappings and sailings, and in long undulating lines; in calm weather they perform intricate aerial evolutions at a great height. They are always awake during the coming in of the tide, which is the favorable time for fishing; they are never seen far from shore when a storm is threatening, and their appearance at sea is regarded by sailors as a sure sign of pleasant weather.
They procure their food on the wing, plunging suddenly from a height of 15 to 25 ft., with the lower mandible wide open and the pouch extended, scooping up the fish and swallowing them at once. They do not carry fish or water to their young in the pouch, as had been generally believed, and according to Audubon this part is always contracted during flight. It is not uncommon to see these birds with a hole through the pouch caused by the spine of a fish, and their throats are occasionally reddened by the blood which has flowed from such a wound. They are fond of following porpoises, picking up their share of the terrified fish on which these cetaceans feed; and in their turn they involuntarily provide for the black-headed gull (chroicocephahis atricilla, Linn.), which watches their plunges, and as they emerge alights on their head or bill, seizing any small fry which may protrude beyond the bill or pouch; the pelicans do not seem to notice the thefts or clamor of the gulls, and make no attempts to dislodge or drive them away.
They are awkward walkers, but buoyant swimmers; when wounded they will bite severely; they feed on fish generally 2 or 3 in. long, rarely taking one as long as the bill; they are powerful, but very sensitive to cold; the flesh is tough and unfit for food, and the eggs are not much better; the senses of sight and hearing are very acute; they are among the most silent of birds. They always keep in flocks of from 20 to 60, and begin to pair by the middle of April; the nest is made of sticks, lined with leaves and grasses, and placed high on a mangrove tree; many nests are built in the same tree, and the trees are often near together; they breed in company with the egrets, herons, and spoonbills, and on islands frequented also by white ibises and frigate pelicans; if not disturbed they use the same breeding places year after year. The eggs, three in number, 3 1/8by 2 1/8 in., are thick-shelled and rough, white, more or less tinged with blood. The young are at first fed by regurgitation of the food of the parents, and so abundantly that the refuse fills the air with the most disgusting odor; they grow fast, and are very fat; they are highly prized as food by the Indians and negroes, and are eagerly eaten by vultures.
White Pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus).
American White Pelican (Pelecanus trachyrhynchus).
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus fuscus).