The Brown Pelican

The Brown Pelican

By Susana Cortázar

Lucky 13.  That’s the number of Brown pelicans inhabiting Zoo Miami’s Pelican Cove. 

Lucky because all 13 are rehab pelicans that may have not otherwise survived had they not come to live at our zoo.  All 13 endured wing injuries, thus rendering them unable to fly and forcing them to remain in captivity for the rest of their life.  In addition to wing injuries, one has corneal opacity in its left eye, which is being treated with steroids, and yet another has an “angel wing,” a deformity as a result of a fracture of the wing tip that prevents him from tucking his wing next to his body so it juts out making him look like an angel. 

Lucky because they have two dedicated keepers, Ezequiel Bugallo and Kresimir Golenja, who take outstanding and meticulous care of them. 
Kresimir Golenja feeding the Brown Pelicans at Pelican Cove
Our Brown pelicans get fed 11 pounds of smelt divided among them twice a day – morning and afternoon.  And just like us, pelicans need vitamins to supplement their diet.  Every day, Ezequiel and Kresimir insert 26 vitamins into 26 smelt.  They keep a log listing the 13 pelicans, which are banded with metal bands on the legs – left leg for females and right leg for males (no, it doesn’t mean men are always “right”) and an additional plastic color band to identify them so the keepers can ensure each bird is fed two smelt with the supplement in it.  Once a bird is fed the two smelt with the supplement, it gets checked on the log, i.e., left purple, right red, left blue, and so on, so no one is left out.  This method of putting vitamins inside the fish also enables the keepers to give the pelicans medication if necessary by injecting or placing the pill in the fish and feeding it to the respective bird. 
Pelican being fed fish with vitamin supplement
After being fed, the pelicans usually move to the other side of Pelican Cove and stand on logs and rocks, where they start to “preen.”  “They have a preen gland at the base of their tail which produces an oily secretion which they spread over their feathers to make them waterproof and also works as thermal regulation,” explains Kresimir.  ”They use their beak to stimulate the gland to produce the oily secretion,” adds Ezequiel.
Preening pelicans

“We always know when our pelicans are ready to breed.  When their neck plumage is brown, they are ready to breed,” says Kresimir.  When their neck plumage is white, their breeding time has passed. 

Females normally lay two eggs – both parents incubate the eggs – but only one chick usually survives as a result of severe sibling rivalry.  “Pelican chicks are altricial (born naked), and then whitish fuzz starts to grow out, followed by grey feathers, turning brown when they reach adulthood,” says Kresimir.  Initially, chicks are fed by both parents, who regurgitate into the babies’ mouth.  After a few months, babies put their entire head into the parents’ throat to stimulate the regurgitation process.  
Ezequiel says that, “when babies are brooded (fed by the parents), the parents’ intake of smelt is increased because they need more nutrients than usual in order to be able to feed the babies and have enough food to stay strong and healthy themselves.” 

Another interesting feature of baby pelicans is that when they hatch, their pouch and bill are proportionate to their size.  As they grow, the pouch becomes deeper, the beak gets longer and its edges become serrated.

In 2010, two chicks hatched at Zoo Miami and once they were old enough and able to, they flew away.

Pelicans cannot live without water – as they are water birds.  Brown pelicans live near coastal waters. “Brown pelicans dive-bomb for fish and are individual hunters within a group,” says Ezequiel, “unlike other pelican species that swim after and encircle their prey before feeding on them.”   After dive-bombing and catching their fish, the pelican’s pouch fills with water.  It then closes its beak to allow the water to be expelled through both sides of the beak and proceeds to swallow the fish.  This process is known as “sifting.”
Brown pelicans are “very social, amicable to people, and easily tamed.  They nest in colonies and chicks form crèches (pods). Parents readily recognize their chicks in the group and feed them,” says Kresimir.

What does the future hold for these birds as far as being captured by man and facing the threat of extinction?  “Luckily, they are federally protected under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits illegal trapping, hunting, shipping, transporting, exporting, and other such practices, of migratory birds,” states Ezequiel.

The Brown pelican is the smallest of the seven pelican species, reaching weights of six to seven pounds and have a wingspan of approximately six feet.

So if you want to see and learn more about these rehab Brown pelicans, come to Zoo Miami and attend the pelican feedings at Pelican Cove at 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.  For only $1 you can get a cup of fish and feed these beautiful birds. 

And I’m sure Ezequiel and Kresimir will be more than happy to answer any questions you may have about our lucky 13.

Photos by Kresimir Golenja