Singly or in squadrons, the soaring pelicans are majestic riders of the air. They are graceful, confident, purposeful. Their wings don’t beat, but rather wave in spare, sinuous rhythms: flap, flap g-l-i-d-e. In these long, long glides they follow their own momentum and the invisible currents. At the distance of flight, they seem regally comfortable. One can be dazed by the perfection of pelicans crossing the sky. Along the coastal waters of California, the Gulf of Mexico, and the southern Atlantic seaboard, they transit with dignity and grace.
There is assurance, too, and efficiency, in the sharp plummet of the pelican diving for food. Aggressive, uncannily accurate, transformed into a feathered spear, the pelican strikes what it detects with the precision of a guided missile – or perhaps with even greater precision. When it holds up its catch and begins that swallowing act, there is a hint of something ungainly. But we all know it’s hard to look good while eating.
The pelican afloat on the water or perched on a piling, or especially the pelican waddling across a pier – now that’s another matter. Clumsy and oafish, slow and vulnerable, the grounded pelican is a half-pitiable, half-frightening misfit. Its distant beauty of airborn motion has peeled away, exposing an ugly, tottering derelict too close to ignore. Like an in-your-face begging wino or half-crazed bag lady, the pelican aground is an embarrassment. It becomes a depraved, nightmarish version of its true self.
So there are two versions of the pelican, at odds with one another and irreconcilable. It is a striking emblem of the two-foldedness of things in human
experience: the Jekyll and Hyde, the frog-prince, the face in the mirror that often seems to have little to do with who we really are.
Though they have been around for a long time, some forty million years (yes, they do look a bit prehistoric), pelicans have a lot in common with humans in the age of gender equality. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young, who leave their nests at between 5 and 9 weeks old. They fly (which is their equivalent of driving off to college) at between 9 and 12 weeks. Adults continue, however, to feed the young for some time after they leave the colony. Sound familiar? Their nests are built, in trees or on the ground, by the females, though the materials are gathered by the males.
Like many retirees, pelicans prefer to nest on coastal islands, where they often create large colonies. While the young nestlings squeal a lot, the mature pelican is usually silent, although he (or she) occasionally emits a low croaking sound. This behavior is very much like older couples of the human species. To cool his body, a pelican will flap his pouch and pant like a dog. I haven’t observed this behavior in humans; the closest to it was my Aunt Minna’s habit of fanning herself with her checkbook. Human panting usually results from another kind of heat. When pelicans quiver, it’s not from sexual excitement, but rather to assist food digestion. Pelicans usually stay within a twenty-five mile area. Unless, of course, they hear of a great cruise bargain. A lot of quivering occurs after the midnight buffet.
90% of all pelicans that share living space with humans end up entangled in fishing lines, while 90% of all humans who share space with other humans end up entangled with divorce proceedings and will contestations, as well as fishing lines.
PELICAN FACTS (from internet sources)
1. Pelicans have been on earth for forty million years.
2. Pelicans nest in colonies, usually in trees, sometimes on the ground. Nesting colonies are found on coastal islands.
3. They live up to 30 years.
4. The greatest hazard to the pelican is fishing line.
5. Pelicans quiver to assist in the metabolic process of food digestion.
6. Almost extinct in the early 1970s, pelicans have mad a comeback as a result of successful conservationist efforts to halt the use of DDT and other pesticides (which caused eggshell thinning and failure of breeding.
7. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young, who leave their nests at between 5 and 9 weeks old. They fly at between 9 and 12 weeks. Adults continue to feed young for some time after they leave colony. 1 brood per year.
8. While nestlings squeal, adults are silent (rarely, a low croak).
9. To cool his body, a pelican will flap his pouch and pant like a dog.
10. Pelicans stay within a 25 mile area most of the time.
11. Nests are built by females with materials gathered by males.