This week’s column was supposed to be about pelicans, but it’s turning out to be about confusion. First, there is the poem from which the title came:
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will 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!
I thought the famous American poet Ogden Nash (1902–1971) wrote this, but it turns out the less famous poet and humorist Dixon Lanier Merritt (1879–1972) wrote it. It’s a memorable limerick, but he got something wrong. Pelicans do catch fish with those huge bills, but they don’t store them. They swallow their catch right away, except when some other bird comes along and swipes it.
Usually we see pelicans along the Martinez shoreline this time of year—I’m hoping they’ll arrive by the time this column appears. If they do, they’ll probably be congregating on the large sandbar west of the marina and near the wreck of the Forester, or gliding along as if there were no gravity. I wonder how far a pelican can go on just one flap of that nine-foot wingspan.
This year, maybe because of the weather, there were pelicans here earlier. You can see them in the first photo, taken at our very own duck pond on May 1. These are American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhyncos), not to be confused with brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), which are the ones we usually see at the coast. Well, I always thought all pelicans were coastal, but it turns out that many white pelicans spend their summers in huge colonies inland, at freshwater and brackish lakes from Salt Lake to the Northwest Territories. They winter at the Pacific coast and the Gulf of Mexico, but not at the shore; they prefer lakes and estuaries.
What are they doing here, then? The National Audubon Society reports that pelicans have recently been summering at Suisun Marsh and may eventually begin to breed there. So I guess they come over to Martinez when the fishing’s good. Unlike brown pelicans, they don’t dive for fish, they just swim along and scoop them up. That’s what they were doing in May. I saw three of them floating along side by side, looking like something from a carousel. Slowly and gracefully, they would dip their bills into the water in solemn unison and then lift them back out again, let the water drain out, and swallow the fish they caught. White pelicans fish in groups like this when they can, driving the fish along and to each other. According to The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, “capture rates are highest during coordinated fishing.” How do people figure things like this out? The pelicans like perch, chub, trout, carp, crayfish, and large salamanders.
It’s not altogether surprising that pelicans would summer at Suisun Marsh. Before the streams of the Central Valley were diverted for agriculture and development, it was a three-hundred-mile expanse, from Chico to Visalia, of interconnected ponds, marshes, and pools. Tulare Lake, which no longer exists, was the largest freshwater body in the West, at eight hundred square miles. American white pelicans bred there as late as 1941 and in the sloughs of the Sacramento River.
The Internet is full of unexpected pelican sightings around California, and there is that good news about the Suisun Marsh. My friend Lynn has been seeing and photographing pelicans along the river near Chico this summer. There are so many factors that affect the behavior of wildife, from predictable weather patterns to climate change, to changes in the species they prey on (and vice versa), from degraded habitats to improved circumstances. So it’s hard to say, but maybe our increased awareness of the importance of wetlands is paying off. Let’s hope.