Friday, February 27, 2009

Oh, a wondrous bird is the Pelican!

That a line from Dixon L Merritt (1879-1972), quite playful that one. The complete poem reads

"Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!
His bill holds more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week.
But I'm darned if I know how the helican."

The pelicans are indeed famous for their bills/ beaks, infact it is what distinguishes Pelicans from other birds the distinctive pouch under the beak which they fill with gulps of water, strain out the liquid, and eat the remaining fish or squid. Pelican is from Greek word for axe denoting its big beak (Australian pelicans have longest beak of any bird in the world). The interesting fact here is that this ancient Greek term was taken by the Latin in the ancient bible. Why pelicans?. Well there are myths about pelicans -they were seen as little metaphors on the life of Jesus Christ. Pelicans are considered symbol of self-sacrifice as they are believed to feed their own blood to young chicks when no other food is available (reality though is that certain species of pelicans get blood red marks on the pouch and also they mostly rest their bills on the breast, giving an impression of stabbing itself. I love myths!!). Another version of this is that the pelican used to kill its young and then resurrect them with its blood, this being analogous to the sacrifice of Jesus. The pelican also provides another symbol for Jesus who allowed soldiers to spear at his heart so that man might live. So yes Church does take Pelicans seriously but that didn’t stop people from hunting it and were listed as endangered, now though they are making a remarkable come back (the Californian brown pelican that became almost extinct in 1960s due to DDT has started to recover after DDT was banned. Recently there were reports of hundreds of these pelicans dying due toxin algae along the south Californian coast; some think its demoic acid in phytoplankton, others blame it one low fish stock, while others on changing weather!).

There are seven species of pelicans in the world. The pelicans can be divided into two groups: those with mostly white adult plumage, which nest on the ground (Australian, Dalmatian, Great white, and American White Pelicans), and those with gray or brown plumage, which nest in trees (Pink backed, Spot billed and Brown, plus the Peruvian pelican, which nests on sea rocks) The smallest is the Brown Pelican and the largest is Dalmatian pelican (with a wing span of almost 11ft). In Indian subcontinent the pelicans found are Spot billed.

Pelicans are amazing birds in the sense that on the ground they look so large and bulky but are excellent fliers, infact they can fly for 24 hours at a stretch covering hundreds of Kms at above 1000m with speeds up to 56Km/hour (that is nearly a Km a minute). They use air thermals and so don’t flap very often. Aren’t they amazing!.

The feeding habits of Pelicans have been in controversy in recent times. Although Pelicans prefer fish and other aquatic creatures, they are described as “eclectic carnivore”. Here are some lines from blogs I took. There is also discussion regarding a very infamous case of pelican gulping pigeon in a Park at UK. Then there is a very amusing exchange over whether Pelicans eat dog!!.

*I’ve always had a deep respect for the pelicans of this world. Sitting on a park bench quietly eating my picnic lunch (a meat pie from a wonderful bakery across the road) it was quite disconcerting to have an Australian Pelican waddle up and stand only a metre in front of us and eyeball us - or at least our lunch

*The video clip of the pelican taking a pigeon shows that they will - in desperation - eat something like that. I’m not surprised that the story of dogs being taken by pelicans is a myth.. I have been rescuing and caring for pelicans for over 15 years and have heard the story a thousand times of the person who knew the person who lost the chihuahua to the pelican……

*This is not an isolated incident. Years ago I heard of a rogue pelican at Renmark, about an hour’s drive upstream from Waikerie. This pelican had been harassing people have picnics on the lawns in front of the hotel. There was even a report of a small dog being eaten by this pelican.

*I have had 1013 pelicans, a metre from my face, and have yet to find a ‘rogue’ pelican. Yes, some are a little more aggressive than others. In the case of your Renmark story, my information has it that people have been feeding the pelicans at that location and the birds have become accustomed to humans. Any birder worth his/her salt would know that feeding wild birds is a no-no.

As for eating small dogs… hahaha… there is a bloke in every coastal pub on the East Coast, who can tell you the story of the pelican who ate the chihuahua! There is even a book titled, “Pelicans, Chihuahuas and Other Urban Myths”. And that is just what it is… a myth.
Lance Ferris

*Australian Seabird RescueOn the pelican “urban myth” I am a little more skeptical. I have not heard of the book you mention but at least one well respected birding identity has emailed me saying that the story of the dog is true. And that a vet she knew told her of the incident on the Gold Coast. I guess that is how urban myths start - all it needs is an ‘authority’ - in this case a vet - to say it is true. Whether fact or fiction, it sure makes a good yarn with a typically Aussie spin. Some overseas visitors must go home from Australia totally confused!

*Hahaha.. a lady phoned the other day, concerned about walking her chihuahua along a beach where there were three pelicans. Jokingly, I told her to tie a house brick around the neck of the dog, so the pelican’s wouldn’t eat it.

Only problem was, that she said, “Thanks very much” … and hung up! I still have nightmares of a tiny dog dragging a brick up the beach.
No way a pelican can swallow a dog. And the latest… only last week, a young man told me he SAW a SEAGULL swallow a chihuahua!

*The video of the pelican eating the pigeon, was taken in the grounds of a park in the UK. The bird is a European Pelican, and if you look closely, part of its left wing is missing. These birds were given to the Queen in the 1800’s by a king in Europe, as a gift. As for the vet with the ‘evidence’ of the pelican swallowing a dog, only last week, one chap said he even had photos of the pelican swallowing the dog. Oddly enough, he couldn’t find them… hmmm. Fiction, my friend

*Thanks for the information about the Pelican. This story just adds more intrigue to the stories about pelicans. That pigeon must really been annoying - or it looked very tasty. It probably saved the pelican the trouble of going fishing.

So there much maligned Pelicans, suffice to add here that Pelicans mostly prefer fish. White Pelican is the national bird of Romania, while brown pelican is the state bird of Louisiana (US) and Sindh (Pakistan) has spot billed pelican as its state bird (in India though no state has Pelican as state bird…which is surprising). In Minnesota (USA) there is a huge statue of Pelican that can be seen even from Broadway Bridge. Snaps taken at Kokkre Bellur (Karnataka).

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Elegant Spoonbills

Spoonbills could easily be mistaken for egrets since they are flawless white. But they are one of the easiest to identify. They are bigger with black legs and of course characteristic spoon shaped black colored bills that have yellow tips. The wide bill swoops through the water, it automatically snaps shut whenever it comes in contact with a food item which is then swallowed, long legs help to wade trough water. During the breeding season they carry a crest as also a yellow breast patch.

Infact the spoonbills are classified according to the region and they are found almost everywhere around the world with some variations. Eurasian spoonbills are the one that migrate to India and therefore commonly found in this subcontinent where they breed abundantly. African spoonbills in contrast have reddish face and legs. Roseate spoonbills found in American subcontinent are spectacular looking birds- rich pink, deepening in some parts into crimson, of nearly all its plumage, together with the yellowish green of its bare head and lake-colored legs, is a must watch (this blogger has seen them only on Net). Royal spoonbills are found in Australia (the Maoris call it kotuku ngutu papa). In Britain till last century spoonbills were referred to as Shovelers. Spoonbills are closely related to ibis and storks. Many countries (more than 20 countries, that is amazing) have honored Spoonbills by coming out with stamps on them. Here one by Netherlands.

Spoonbills breed in societies, not only of their own kind, but in company of Herons and ibises, either on trees or in reed-beds, making large nests. They like most birds feed the young by regurgitation. They are found mostly near water bodies and marshy lands. The bird feeds actively in the mornings and evenings. The flock wades into shallow water and with outstretched necks, obliquely held partly open bills the birds move forward sweeping in a half circle from side to side raking up the bottom mud with the tip of its mandibles. They rest in afternoons and stay together and move about lethargically without feeding. At times they stand immobile. Most of them go to sleep standing on one leg twisting their pliant necks right round to bring the bill to rest in the pile of feathers covering their shoulders and backs. At times it is seen two birds stand side-by-side each resting its bill on the back of its neighbor!!. Quite a sight that one.

This painting taken from the Net done by John James Audubon. Audubon was legendary American Ornithologist (as also natural historian and painter). Infact he has been quoted by none other than Darwin in Origin of Species (what more can one say). Audubon’s Birds of America is considered as greatest examples of work of art. A contemporary French critic wrote, "A magic power transported us into the forests which for so many years this man of genius has trod. Learned and ignorant alike were astonished at the spectacle...". Audubon said once "I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best way I could”. There is another line of his I came across in the net “A true conservationist is a man who knows that the world is not given by his fathers, but borrowed from his children”. Amazing man.

Trying disparately to watch Roseate spoonbills a nature photographer writes in his blogs: we discovered from the book, a roseate spoonbill (Ajaia ajaja), a large pink and white wading bird with a shovel-shaped yellow bill it uses to poke around in shallow water and mud looking for insects, crustaceans and small fish. It became the bird we most wanted to see. Over the next several years on visits to the Everglades, Corkscrew Swamp and numerous Florida state and county parks my birding wife spotted and pointed out to me practically every kind of egret, ibis, heron, sandpiper, tern, gull and woodpecker found in Florida along with bald eagles, owls, hawks, ducks, songbirds and anything else with feathers. She knows her birds, and, through her, I’m learning them too. The list grew: ruddy turnstone, scrub jay, pileated woodpecker, carolina wren… but no roseate spoonbill. Every year as we drove down to Florida we’d say to each other, maybe this year we’ll see a spoonbill. Every year… no luck. Once or twice a friend would claim to have spotted one. Did we believe the claim? Of course we did, but… Finally we began referring to it as “the mythical roseate spoonbill.….
So then what happened?. Well… they had to wait for seven years to finally spot their Roseate Spoonbill. These are the kinds of stories legend of bird watching are made of.

Another incident from a blog here about a birdwatcher having a chuckle at somebody’s expense. While waiting for the Spoonbills to wander back my way I had a bit of a chuckle when some passersby stopped to ask if the pink birds were Flamingos. The driver seemed a bit put off when I replied "No, they are Roseate Spoonbills" by responding to my answer with disappointment in her voice, just saying "Oh" and driving on down the road. Too many plastic Flamingos in yards around the state, I guess.

Last one from a blog that indicates the impact spoonbills could have: I must admit that the spoonbills are amongst my favorite birds. Every time I see a spoonbill it gives me great pleasure. In fact, this species was in part responsible for me becoming a birder in the first place. Back in October 1977 I took my family camping to Chambers Gorge in the Flinders Ranges...
I couldn’t have agreed more they are such spectacular birds.

PS. In Hindi Spoonbills are referred to as chamach baz, chamach being spoon in Hindi. Snaps taken at Ranganathita near Mysore. Here is a painting by Betty Salter 'Spoonbills on Waimea Estuary '