Pelicans are one of the heaviest flying birds in the world. The Australian Pelican weighs in at up to 6.8 kilograms. Despite the weight, these amazing birds can travel great distances with minimal effort and are surprisingly efficient once they’re airborne. Their wingspans can be up to 2.6 metres wide, which gives them maximum lift from buoyant, warm air.
As graceful as they are while swimming or flying, it’s quite a different matter when they’re on the ground. Their weight, size and short legs (which are set far back) mean they have to waddle and are quite ungainly. Taking off for flight requires a long run-up, preferably from the water, and a good deal of flapping before they become airborne. Landing is a bit easier; they prefer to land on water or a high point such as a handy lamp-post.
Perhaps the best known feature of pelicans is their massive beak and throat pouch:
A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill can 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.
- Dixon Lanier Merritt, 1910
This ditty, which was most likely written to describe an American species of pelican, can just as easily apply to the Australian Pelican.
So, can a pelican hold more in its bill than its belly? It sure can! The sac of fleshy skin hanging from the lower bill is called the gular pouch. This pouch, along with the pelican’s flexible lower jaw can scoop up to 13 litres of water and food at any one time. The pelican then sieves fish out of this water to eat.
This marvellous throat pouch is also useful for keeping the pelican cool in hot weather. Body heat is released by opening the bill and pulsing the pouch skin in and out (which is called gular fluttering).
Breeding tends to be affected by environmental conditions and rainfall patterns. Thousands of pelicans gather to breed after heavy rainfall in arid areas of Australia, such as Lake Eyre. Most Australian Pelicans breed in colonies on low-lying islands or shores.