The longer I live on Anna Maria, the more I appreciate the brown pelicans that live here year-round. At first glance, they seem so much less beautiful than their large white cousins who migrate here in winter and therefore are less “common.” But there are some very special things about the brown pelican and we are lucky to have them in Florida and on the island. I believe they are very sensitive to environmental degradation, so their presence is not only a joy, but also a reassuring sign.
Brown pelicans have a wing span of about 84 inches, compared to the 108 inch wingspan of the American White Pelican. One of the most surprising things to witness is a brown pelican feeding by diving from the air. There is a big splash, as the bill enters the water to catch a fish and the body of the bird continues a little farther so the bird lands, twisting over its bill, so it ends up facing the opposite direction from that in which it was going. If one looks at it at this point, it’s often difficult to figure out what one is looking at. The head may still be down in the water and body still twisted. The impression is simply that something very large is partly submerged and partly visible. It often takes me awhile to realize it’s just a brown pelican fishing.
The fishing dive seems so awkward, but it serves these birds so well. This is why, over time, I have come to appreciate it as something more than a goofy maneuver. When one considers how big pelicans are (brown ones are four feet long, and white ones can be over five feet long), their apparently awkwardness becomes secondary to the amazing way they seem to be at home in both the sky and paddling in the water. And they can walk on land, too.
There is something graceful, in fact, about the way pelicans fly in formation. Their wing flapping seems coordinated, as do their periods of gliding. The group alternates between flapping and gliding, and the effect is mesmerizing.
Brown pelicans change their color as they grow, as well as with the seasons. This is why I first thought certain brown pelicans were American White Pelicans. But once you’ve seen an actual American White Pelican, there is no question about the difference between these two members of the Pelecanidae Family.
It’s often easy to find the large white birds in the area of the fishing docks in Cortez, just over the bridge from Bradenton Beach. But every once in awhile, I’ve spotted them in Bimini Bay, and this is always a beautiful sight.
It’s sad how many pelicans are snagged by fishing hooks. The generous people of Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation, based in Bradenton Beach, remove countless hooks from pelicans. Before she passed away last year, Ellie Smith, of Wildlife Rescue, had spent years driving around the island, throwing fish to pelicans, and always finding several from which to remove hooks. Fishermen need to be very careful not to catch the birds with their hook, and, if they do, to pull the bird toward them and remove the hook, rather than simply cut the line, leaving the hook in the bird.