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Pelicans are large water birds with a giant throat pouch designed for storing fish catches. This feature makes pelicans unique compared to all other birds (Burton, M and R. 1977. Inside the World Animal World. Quadrangle). The pelican’s famous foot-long bill, the longest of any living bird, can hold a hundred or more fish (Scott, J. 1975. That Wonderful Pelican. Putnam). The volume of its full bill is up to 11.4 liters, (3 gallons), a size larger than that of most entire birds (Fitzgerald, D. B. 2010. A Critical Evaluation of Origin of Species. TEACH Services, Inc. p. 35). It has a specially designed bone and muscle system it uses to operate its beak and pouch. The pouch normally folds conveniently under its bill, but expands when fishing. These versatile fishermen can scoop up fish with their bills and can store them in their pouch, which can stretch many times their original size. 

They belong to the family Pelecanidae (Louchart, A. et al. 2010. “The earliest known pelican reveals 30 million years of evolutionary stasis in beak morphology.” Journal of Ornithology June, p. 2). The smallest is the Brown Pelican (P. occidentalis), which is as tiny as 2.75 kg (6 lb), 106 cm (42 in) long with a wingspan as short as 1.83 m (6 ft). The largest known is the Dalmatian Pelican (P. crispus), which weighs up to 15 kg (33 lb) is 183 cm (72 in) long, and has a wingspan of up to 3 meters, or nearly 10 feet wide. The most common pelican is believed to be the Brown Pelican with estimates of up to 650,000 birds. The rarest species, the Dalmatian Pelican, is estimated to have only 13,000 to 18,000 living birds worldwide.

The eight known species of modern pelicans are found on all continents except Antarctica. They inhabit primarily warm regions, though breeding ranges reach 45° south (Australian Pelican, P. conspicillatus) and 60° north (American White Pelicans, P. erythrorhynchos, in western Canada). Pelicans live near coastal waters to fish, and for this reason are absent from polar-regions, deep ocean areas, most oceanic islands, most inland lakes, and inland South America (Scott, 1975).

Their short, strong legs and four-toed webbed feet make pelicans excellent swimmers. Their short squarish tail, decked with 20 to 24 feathers, helps guide them in their long flights. They have six-to-ten-feet wide powerful wings that enable them to travel for hours through the air at from 48-56 kph (30 to 35 mph). A layer of special fibers deep in their breast muscles can hold the wings rigidly horizontal for gliding and soaring. Their unusually large 30 to 35 secondary flight feathers allow them to fly over 150 km (100 miles).

When flying, a pelican can swoop down sharply, smashing into the water fast enough for its beak to plunge in and scoop up fish, yet slowly enough to control its flight so that its body clears the water’s surface. To maintain better control in the water, these birds have air sacs that provide the buoyancy required for effective maneuverability (Scott, 1975).

Many pelicans fish in groups. Most of their fishing is done by an ingenious gathering technique. First they swim in a line or semi-circle to chase schools of small fish into shallow water. Then they beat the water with their wings and scoop up the fish en masse. The pelican then stands on its legs to scoop up the fish. Large fish are caught with the bill-tip, then tossed up in the air and caught so that the fish slide into the pelican’s gullet headfirst. In contrast to most pelicans, the North American Brown Pelican usually plunge-dives for its prey. They often catch fish in the water, expanding the throat pouch, then draining water from the pouch before swallowing their catch (Fitzgerald, 2010, p. 35).

Pelicans have voracious appetites and, during their 30-year or longer lifetimes, consume about 800 pounds of fish annually. Because flight requires enormous amounts of energy, many birds must devour tons of food in their lifetime. The pelican diet consists mostly of fish, but they also consume small amphibians, crustaceans and, on some occasions, small birds.

Pelicans are very gregarious and nest colonially. The ground-nesting species use a complex communal courtship involving a group of males chasing a single female in the air, on land, or in the water while pointing, gaping, and thrusting their bills at each other. The tree-nesting species have a simpler courting process involving perched males advertising for females.

Both sexes incubate by placing the eggs on top of or below their feet, then changing shifts. All species lay at least two eggs, and hatching success for undisturbed pairs can be as high as 95 percent. The young gather in “crèches” of up to 100 birds, and the parents recognize and feed only their own offspring. By 6 to 8 weeks their offspring wander around, occasionally swimming, and may practice communal feeding (Scott, 1975).

The young of all species fledge 10 to 12 weeks after hatching. They may remain with their parents afterwards, but are now seldom or never fed by them. Parents are monogamous for a single season, but the pair bond extends only to the nesting area; mates fish independently away from the nest.

No other bird is like the pelican, and no fossil or other links have been discovered to explain its evolution (Hecht, J. 2010. “Pelican Fossil Poses Evolutionary Puzzle.” New Scientist June 22.). Researchers have concluded that the Pelecaniforms, the order that includes pelicans, presents the “most complex and controversial questions in the avian phylogeny” (Sibley, C and G. Ahiquist, 1990. Phylogeny and Classification of Birds. Yale University Press.). In spite of many morphological studies pelican evolution has vexed ornithologists for decades (Hedges , S.B. and C. Sibley. 1994. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA. 91: October p. 9861). One example is how the pelican’s mandible (jaw) bone system “differs from all other birds” due to their combination of long, flat and spatulate rostrum with two ridges on the ventral surface subparallel to the edges, rostral premaxillary hook, and long and thick mandibular rami showing the intraramal hinge between prearticular+angular (preserved) and splenial+dentary (unpreserved) on both sides (Louchart et al., 2010, p. 2).

Paleontologists have identified an extremely well preserved fossilized beak dated by evolutionists at 30-million-years old. The authors state: “This fossil reveals a remarkable evolutionary stasis in the morphology of such an advanced avian feeding apparatus through ca. 30 million years” (Louchart et al, 2010, p. 1). This find has caused evolutionists to ask why the birds have changed so little over such an enormously long period. The first pelican is clearly a pelican and has not changed since then.

Another problem is that genetic studies do not support the proposed evolutionary relationships based on morphology or form. For example, one study found that genetic research on DNA provides “another example of incongruence [disagreement] between classifications derived from morphological versus genetic traits” (Hedges and Sibley, 1994, p. 9861). The researchers concluded that the major diagnostic morphological characters used to place birds into “the traditional order Pelecaniformes are not useful for inferring phylogeny” (1994, p. 9865).

Other genetic studies also found “that the traditional [physical] characters used to unite certain groups” are actually of very limited help in documenting evolution because DNA comparisons produce a very different phylogeny tree than does morphology. DNA comparisons of birds “show no resemblance” to evolutionary trees that are based on similarity of physical traits (Tuinen, Marcel Van et al.. 2001. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B. 268 p. 1345). Furthermore, the first pelican is a pelican and no evidence of their evolution exists.

Jerry Bergman
February 2011

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