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Brown Pelican

During the warmer months, Brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) can be seen flying in V formations over coastal waters or sitting on piers and pilings. Pelicans are large birds with a wingspan of 6 feet. Adults can grow to 4 ½ feet long and weigh up to 10 pounds.

A pelican is built for flying and swimming but it is decidedly awkward on the ground. This fishing bird has excellent eyesight. A pelican effortlessly glides high above the water then plunges with a large splash headfirst into the water to scoop up fish in its oversized bill which can expand to hold three times more than its stomach. After filling its bill, a pelican tips its head down to drain the water out of its bill, then tips its head back to swallow. It’s comical and not usual to see seagulls make an attempt to snatch a free meal from the pouch.

Pelicans nest on the ground or in trees and bushes. The male collects nesting materials but the female constructs the nest. Between March and May the female lays 2-4 white eggs. Both parents help incubate the eggs (with their feet!) and care for the young, which are completely dependent on their parents when they hatch. In the mid-1900s, the use of DDT severely reduced pelican populations, which nearly disappeared from North America. DDT caused the birds to lay eggs with thin shells that broke when the parents tried to incubate the eggs. Environmental regulations banning DDT have allowed pelicans to make a remarkable comeback. Today, Fisherman’s Island, a protected area at the tip of the Eastern Shore, has become an important breeding ground for these birds.

You can see once federally endangered brown pelicans in the Virginia Living Museum’s outdoor Coastal Plain Aviary.

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