Fishing Pelicans

The American white pelican ranks fifth on our list of goofiest looking birds in Montana. But don’t let their ridiculous physical features fool you, particularly if you are a bass or perch as the photos below show. Watching pelicans fish in large groups is remarkable, with their choreography putting Olympic synchronized swimmers to shame. They swim shoulder to shoulder in a line, occasionally dipping their heads under water until one or more of them spies (or feels) a passing fish. Instantly all the pelicans are aware and the line turns into a semicircle and then a circle, with all pelicans holding their heads under water with their cavernous mouths wide open. One can only imagine the fear of the fish surrounded by hungry mouths in this true-life horror show. And then, one lucky pelican feels the fleeing fish in its mouth and the trap is sprung. The lucky pelican, not wanting to encourage the attention of others, slowly turns from the circle, keeping its bill under water. But the others notice and move quickly toward the lucky pelican and begin nipping and biting its head, trying to release the fish. Usually the lucky pelican is able to keep the fish in its mouth and somehow, miraculously, unbelievably, swallow it. We all know that fish do not die quickly and they must thrash about for some time inside the stomach of the pelican barely bigger than the fish itself in some cases. This feat was immortalized in the (Ogdenashian) limerick composed by Dixon Lanier Merritt (1910):

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.

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