Louisiana State Bird – Eastern Brown Pelican – Pelecanus occidentalis

Brown Pelican

State Bird of Louisiana

By John James Audubon,
F. R. SS. L. & E.

VOLUME VII.

THE BROWN PELICAN.
[Brown Pelican.]

PELECANUS FUSCUS, Linn.
[Pelecanus occidentalis.]
PLATE CCCCXXIII.–MALE. PLATECCCCXXIV.–YOUNG.

The Brown Pelican, which is one of the most interesting of our Americanbirds, is a constant resident in the Floridas, where it resorts to theKeys and the salt-water inlets, but never enters fresh-water streams, asthe White Pelican is wont to do. It is rarely seen farther eastward thanCape Hatteras, but is found to the south far beyond the limits of the UnitedStates. Within the recollection of persons still living, its numbers havebeen considerably reduced, so much indeed that in the inner Bay of Charleston,where twenty or thirty years ago it was quite abundant, very few individualsare now seen, and these chiefly during a continuance of tempestuous weather.There is a naked bar, a few miles distant from the main land, between Charlestonand the mouth of the Santee, on which my friend JOHN BACHMAN some yearsago saw a great number of these birds, of which he procured several; butat the present day, few are known to breed farther east than the salt-waterinlets running parallel to the coast of Florida, forty or fifty miles southof St. Augustine, where I for the first time met with this Pelican in considerablenumbers.

My friend JOHN BULOW, Esq. took me in his barge to visit the Halifax,which is a large inlet, and on which we soon reached an island where theBrown Pelicans had bred for a number of years, but where, to my great disappointment,none were then to be seen. The next morning, being ten or twelve milesfarther down the stream, we entered another inlet, where I saw severaldozens of these birds perched on the mangroves, and apparently sound asleep.I shot at them from a very short distance, and with my first barrel broughttwo to the water, but although many of them still remained looking at us,I could not send the contents of my second barrel to them, as the shothad unluckily been introduced into it before the powder. They all flewoff one after another, and still worse, as the servants approached thosewhich had fallen upon the water, they also flew away.

On arriving at the Keys of Florida, on board the Marion Revenue Cutter,I found the Pelicans pretty numerous. They became more abundant the farthersouth we proceeded, and I procured specimens at different places, but nowhereso many as at Key West. There you would see them flying within pistol-shotof the wharfs, the boys frequently trying to knock them down with stones,although I believe they rarely succeed in their efforts. The Marion layat anchor several days at a short distance from this island, and closeto another. Scarcely an hour of daylight passed without our having Pelicansaround us, all engaged at their ordinary occupations, some fishing, someslumbering as it were on the bosom of the ocean, or on the branches ofthe mangroves. This place and all around for about forty miles, seemedto be favourite resorts of these birds; and as I had excellent opportunitiesof observing their habits, I consider myself qualified to present you withsome account of them.

The flight of the Brown Pelican, though to appearance heavy, is remarkablywell sustained, that bird being able not only to remain many hours at atime on wing, but also to mount to a great height in the air to performits beautiful evolutions. Their ordinary manner of proceeding, either whensingle or in flocks, is by easy flappings and sailings alternating at distancesof from twenty to thirty yards, when they glide along with great speed.They move in an undulated line, passing at one time high, at another low,over the water or land, for they do not deviate from their course on comingupon a key or a point of land. When the waves run high, you may see them"troughing," as the sailors say, or directing their course alongthe hollows. While on wing they draw in their head between their shoulders,stretch out their broad webbed feet to their whole extent, and proceedin perfect silence.

When the weather is calm, and a flood of light and heat is poured downupon nature by the genial sun, they are often, especially during the loveseason, seen rising in broad circles, flock after flock, until they attaina height of perhaps a mile, when they gracefully glide on constantly expandedwings, and course round each other, for an hour or more at a time, afterwhich, in curious zigzags, and with remarkable velocity, they descend towardstheir beloved element, and settle on the water, on large sand-bars or onmangroves. It is interesting beyond description to observe flocks of BrownPelicans thus going through their aerial evolutions.

Now, reader, look at those birds standing on their strong legs, on thatburning sand-bar. How dexterously do they wield that great bill of theirs,as they train their plumage! Now along each broad quill it passes, drawingit out and displaying its elasticity; and now with necks stretched to theirfull length, and heads elevated, they direct its point in search of theinsects that are concealed along their necks and breasts. Now they drooptheir wings for awhile, or stretch them alternately to their full extent;some slowly lie down on the sand, others remain standing, quietly drawtheir head over their broad shoulders, raise one of their feet, and placingtheir bill on their back, compose themselves to rest. There let them reposein peace. Had they alighted on the waters, you might have seen them, likea fleet at anchor, riding on the ever-rolling billows as unconcernedlyas if on shore. Had they perched on yon mangroves, they would have laidthemselves flat on the branches, or spread their wings to the sun or thebreeze, as Vultures are wont to do.

But see, the tide is advancing; the billows chase each other towardsthe shores; the mullets joyful and keen leap along the surface, as theyfill the bays with their multitudes. The slumbers of the Pelicans are over;the drowsy birds shake their heads, stretch open their mandibles and pouchby way of yawning, expand their ample wings, and simultaneously soar away.Look at them as they fly over the bay; listen to the sound of the splashthey make as they drive their open bills, like a pock-net, into the sea,to scoop up their prey; mark how they follow that shoal of porpoises, andsnatch up the frightened fishes that strive to escape from them. Down theygo, again and again. What voracious creatures they are!

The Brown Pelicans are as well aware of the time of each return of thetide, as the most watchful pilots. Though but a short time before theyhave been sound asleep, yet without bell or other warning, they suddenlyopen their eyelids, and all leave their roosts, the instant when the waters,which have themselves reposed for awhile, resume their motion. The Pelicanspossess a knowledge beyond this, and in a degree much surpassing that ofman with reference to the same subject: they can judge with certainty ofthe changes of weather. Should you see them fishing all together, in retiredbays, be assured, that a storm will burst forth that day; but if they pursuetheir finny prey far out at sea, the weather will be fine, and you alsomay launch your bark and go to the fishing. Indeed, most sea-birds possessthe same kind of knowledge, as I have assured myself by repeated observation,in a degree corresponding to their necessities; and the best of all prognosticatorsof the weather, are the Wild Goose, the Gannet, the Lestris, and the Pelican.

This species procures its food on wing, and in a manner quite differentfrom that of the White Pelican. A flock will leave their resting place,proceed over the waters in search of fish, and when a shoal is perceived,separate at once, when each, from an elevation of from fifteen to twenty-fivefeet, plunges in an oblique and somewhat winding direction, spreading tothe full stretch its lower mandible and pouch, as it reaches the water,and suddenly scoops up the object of its pursuit, immersing the head andneck, and sometimes the body, for an instant. It immediately swallows itsprey, rises on wing, dashes on another fish, seizes and devours it, andthus continues, sometimes plunging eight or ten times in a few minutes,and always with unerring aim. When gorged, it rests on the water for awhile,but if it has a brood, or a mate sitting on her eggs, it flies off at oncetowards them, no matter how heavily laden it may be. The generally receivedidea that Pelicans keep fish or water in their pouch, to convey them totheir young, is quite erroneous. The water which enters the pouch whenit is immersed, is immediately forced out between the partially closedmandibles, and the fish, unless larger than those on which they usuallyfeed, is instantly swallowed, to be afterwards disgorged for the benefitof the young, either partially macerated, or whole, according to the ageand size of the latter. Of all this I have satisfied myself, when withinless than twenty yards of the birds as they were fishing; and I never sawthem fly without the pouch being closely contracted towards the lower mandible.Indeed, although I now much regret that I did not make the experiment whenI had the means of doing so, I doubt very much if a Pelican could fly atall with its burden so much out of trim, as a sailor would say.

They at times follow the porpoise, when that animal is in pursuit ofprey, and as the fishes rise from the deep water towards the surface, comein cunningly for their share, falling upon the frightened shoal, and seizingone or more, which they instantly gobble up. But one of the most curioustraits of the Pelican is, that it acts unwittingly as a sort of purveyorto the Gulls just as the Porpoise acts towards itself. The Black-headedGull of WILSON, which is abundant along the coast of the Floridas in springand summer, watches the motions of the Pelicans. The latter having plungedafter a shoal of small fishes, of which it has caught a number at a time,in letting off the water from amongst them, sometimes allows a few to escape;but the Gull at that instant alights on the bill of the Pelican, or onits head, and seizes the fry at the moment they were perhaps congratulatingthemselves on their escape. This every body on board the Marion observedas well as myself, while that vessel was at anchor in the beautiful harbourof Key West. To me such sights were always highly interesting, and I doubtif in the course of my endeavours to amuse you, I ever felt greater pleasurethan I do at this moment, when, with my journal at my side, and the Gullsand Pelicans in my mind’s eye as distinctly as I could wish, I ponder onthe faculties which Nature has bestowed on animals which we merely consideras possessed of instinct. How little do we yet know of the operations ofthe Divine Power! On the occasions just mentioned, the Pelicans did notmanifest the least anger towards the Gulls.

On the ground this species is by no means so active, for it walks heavily,and when running, which it now and then does while in play, or during courtship,it looks extremely awkward, as it then stretches out its neck, partiallyextends its wings, and reels so that one might imagine it ready to fallat each step. If approached when wounded and on the water, it swims offwith speed, and when overtaken, it suddenly turns about, opens its largebill, snaps it violently several times in succession, causing it to emita smart noise in the manner of owls, strikes at you, and bites very severely.While I was at Mr. BULOW’s, his Negro hunter waded after one whose winghad been broken. The Pelican could not be seized without danger, and Iwas surprised to see the hunter draw his butcher’s knife, strike the longblade through the open pouch of the bird, hook it, as it were, by the lowermandible, and at one jerk swing it up into the air with extreme dexterity,after which he broke its neck and dragged it ashore.

The pouch measures from six to ten inches in depth, according to theage of the bird after the first moult. The superb male whose portrait isbefore you, and which was selected from among a great number, had it aboutthe last mentioned size, and capable of holding a gallon of water, werethe mandibles kept horizontal. This membrane is dried and used for keepingsnuff, gunpowder and shot. When fresh it may be extended so as to becomequite thin and transparent, like a bladder.

This Pelican seldom seizes fish that are longer than its bill, and thesize of those on which it ordinarily feeds is much smaller. Indeed, severalwhich I examined, had in the stomach upwards of a hundred fishes, whichwere only from two to three inches in length. That organ is long, slender,and rather fleshy. In some I found a great number of live blue-colouredworms, measuring two and a half inches in length, and about the thicknessof a Crow-quill. The gut is about the size of a Swan’s quill, and fromten to twelve feet in length, according to the age of the individual.

At all periods the Brown Pelican keeps in flocks, seldom amounting tomore than fifty or sixty individuals of both sexes, and of different ages.At the approach of the pairing time, or about the middle of April, theold males and females separate from the rest, and remove to the inner keysor to large estuaries, well furnished with mangroves of goodly size. Theyoung birds, which are more numerous, remain along the shores of the opensea, unless during heavy gales.

Now let us watch the full grown birds. Some skirmishes have taken place,and the stronger males, by dint of loud snappings of their bill, some hardtugs of the neck and head, and some heavy beats with their wings, havedriven away the weaker, which content themselves with less prized belles.The females, although quiet and gentle on ordinary occasions, are morecourageous than the males, who, however, are assiduous in their attentions,assist in forming the nest, feed their mates while sitting, and even sharethe labour of incubation with them. Now see the mated birds, like the citizensof a newly laid out town in some part of our western country, breakingthe dry sticks from the trees, and conveying them in their bills to yonmangrove isle. You see they place all their mansions on the south-westside, as if to enjoy the benefit of all the heat of that sultry climate.Myriads of mosquitoes buzz around them, and alight on the naked parts oftheir body, but this seems to give them no concern. Stick after stick islaid, one crossing another, until a strong platform is constructed. Nowroots and withered plants are brought, with which a basin is formed forthe eggs. Not a nest, you observe, is placed very low; the birds preferthe tops of the mangroves, although they do not care how many nests areon one tree, or how near the trees are to each other. The eggs, of whichthere are never more than three, are rather elliptical, and average threeinches and one-eighth in length, by two inches and one-eighth in theirgreatest breadth. The shell is thick and rather rough, of a pure whitecolour, with a few faint streaks of a rosy tint, and blotches of a verypale hue, from the centre towards the crown of the egg.

The young are at first covered with cream-coloured down, and have thebill and feet disproportionately large. They are fed with great care, andso abundantly, that the refuse of their food, putrid and disgusting, liesin great quantities round them; but neither young nor old regard this,however offensive it may be to you. As the former grow the latter bringlarger fish to them. At first the food is dropped in a well macerated stateinto their extended throats; afterwards the fish is given to them entire;and finally the parent birds merely place it on the edge of the nest. Theyoung increase in size at a surprising rate. When half fledged they seema mere mass of fat, their partially indurated bill has acquired considerablelength, their wings droop by their sides, and they would be utterly unableto walk. The Vultures at this period often fall upon them and devour themin the absence of their parents. The Indians also carry them off in considerablenumbers; and farther eastward, on the Halifax river, for instance, theNegroes kill all they can find, to make gumbo soup of them during winter.The Crows, less powerful, but quite as cunning, suck the eggs; and manya young one which has accidentally fallen from the nest, is sure to bepicked up by some quadruped, or devoured by the Shark or Balacuda. Whenextensive depredations have thus been made, the birds abandon their breedingplaces, and do not return to them. The Pelicans in fact are, year afteryear, retiring from the vicinity of man, and although they afford but veryunsavoury food at any period of their lives, will yet be hunted beyondthe range of civilization, just as our best of all game, the Wild Turkey,is now, until to meet with them the student of nature will have to sailround Terra del Fuego, while he may be obliged to travel to the Rocky Mountainsbefore he find the other bird. Should you approach a settlement of thePelicans and fire a few shots at them, they all abandon the place, andleave their eggs or young entirely at your disposal.

At all seasons, the Negroes of the plantations on the eastern coastof the Floridas lie in wait for the Pelicans. There, observe that fellow,who, with rusty musket, containing a tremendous charge of heavy shot, isconcealed among the palmettoes, on the brink of a kind of embankment formedby the shelly sand. Now comes a flock of Pelicans, forcing their way againstthe breeze, unaware of the danger into which they rush, for there, a fewyards apart, several Negroes crouch in readiness to fire; and let me tellyou, good shots they are. Now a blast forces the birds along the shore;off goes the first gun, and down comes a Pelican; shot succeeds shot; andnow the Negroes run up to gather the spoil. They skin the birds like somany racoons, cut off the head, wings and feet; and should you come thisway next year, you may find these remains bleached in the sun. Towardsnight, the sable hunters carry off their booty, marching along in Indianfile, and filling the air with their extemporaneous songs. At home theyperhaps salt, or perhaps smoke them; but in whatever way the Pelicans areprepared, they are esteemed good food by the sons of Africa.

The Brown Pelican is a strong and tough bird, although not so weightyas the white species. Its flesh is, in my opinion, always impure. It seemsnever satisfied with food, and it mutes so profusely, that not a spot ofverdure can be seen on the originally glossy and deep-coloured mangroveson which it nestles; and I must say that, much as I admire it in some respects,I should be sorry to keep it near me as a pet.

During winter, when the mullet, a favourite fish with the Brown Pelican,as it is with me, retires into deeper water, these birds advance fartherto seaward, and may be seen over all parts of the Gulf of Mexico, and betweenthe Florida Reefs and the opposite isles, especially during fine weather.They are very sensible to cold, and in this respect are tender birds. Nowand then, at this season, they are seen on Lake Borgne and over Lake Pontchartrain,but never on the Mississippi beyond the rise of the tides, the space higherup being abandoned to the White Pelican. The keenness of their sight isprobably equal to that of any Hawk, and their hearing is also very acute.They are extremely silent birds, but when excited they utter a loud andrough grunt, which is far from musical. Several persons in the Floridasassured me that the Brown Pelicans breed at all seasons of the year; butas I observed nothing to countenance such an idea, I would give it as myopinion that they raise only one brood in the season.

Their bodies are greatly inflated by large air-cells; their bones, thoughstrong, are very light; and they are tough to kill.

Since I wrote my account of the habits of this very interesting bird,I have followed it westward as far as the inland bays of the Texas, whereI found it almost as abundant as on the coast of the Floridas. In the formercountry however, I observed it breeding on the ground, and on the smallnaked islets of the large bays margining the Mexican Gulf. The nests wereformed much in the same manner as when placed on trees, and the eggs wereof the same number as stated. Having examined several specimens procuredon the nest, in the act of incubation, I found that the plumage of thefully adult female is precisely like that of the male; and I am now convincedthat birds of both sexes are several years in acquiring their full plumage,although the precise number of years is what I have not yet learned. Someadditional observations respecting the habits of this species may now bestated.

During a severe gale, on the 7th of April, 1836, the wind coming fromthe north-west, I saw a flock of about thirty of these birds flying onlya few feet above the water, and against the gale. Having proceeded a fewyards, they plunged into the water, generally to leeward, and threw theirbodies round as soon as their bills were immersed, giving a very curiousappearance to the wings, which seemed as if locked. On seizing a fish theykept the bill beneath the surface for a short time in a perpendicular direction,and drew it up gradually, when the water was seen to flow out, after whichthey raised the bill to an horizontal position, and swallowed the fish.In this way the whole flock kept dashing and plunging pell-mell, like Gannets,over a space of about one hundred yards, fishing at times in the very surf,and where the water could not be more than a very few feet deep. Each ofthem must have caught upwards of a score of fishes. As soon as they weresatisfied, they flew in a line across the channel, and landed on low banksunder the lee of the island, opposite our harbour. During all the timeof their fishing they were attended by a number of Black-headed Gulls,Larus Atricilla, which followed all their movements, alighting on theirheads, and feeding as I have already described. These Gulls followed theirpurveyors to the same low banks to spend the night.

Notwithstanding all that has been said to the contrary by some Europeanwriters, I feel perfectly satisfied that these Pelicans must make ampleuse of some oily matter contained in the uropygial gland, as their plumageis always dry in the midst of their continued plungings. On the 14th ofthe same month, my party happened to shoot a good number of Brown Pelicans,among which was one slightly wounded in the body. The sailors tied itsbill with a piece of rope-yarn, and placed it in the stern of the boat;but while they were again charging their muskets, the bird recovered sufficientlyto take to its wings, clear the boat, and fly off. In such a conditionit must necessarily have perished, of hunger.

PELECANUS FUSCUS, Bonap. Syn., p. 401.
BROWN PELICAN, Nutt. Man., vol. ii. p. 476.

BROWN PELICAN, Pelecanus fuscus, Aud. Orn. Biog., vol. iii. p. 376;vol.v. p. 212.

Adult, 52, 80.

Very abundant and constantly resident from Texas along the shores eastwardto North Carolina. Breeds on trees and also on the ground; eggs three.

Adult Male.

Bill more than twice the length of the head, rather stout, straight,depressed towards the end. Upper mandible with the dorsal line straightas far as the unguis, the ridge broad and convex, separated from the sideby a groove on each side, broader and more convex at the base, narrowedand flattened towards the unguis, which is curved, stout, convex above,sharp-edged, acute; sides of the bill perpendicular at the base, narrowedtowards the middle, widened and approaching to horizontal towards the end;edges sharp, with a broad furrowed groove beneath for the reception ofthose of the lower mandible. Lower mandible with the angle extending toless than half an inch from the tip, and filled by a bare membrane, thesides nearly erect and convex, the edges sharp, the tip compressed, deflected,obtuse. The membrane of the lower mandible extends down the fore neck inthe form of a wrinkled pouch.

Head of moderate size, oblong; neck long, stout; body rather slender.Feet short, stout, nearly central; tibia bare, its lower part covered allround with small scales; tarsus short, stout, compressed, covered all roundwith hexagonal scales, of which the anterior are much larger; toes in thesame plane, all connected by reticulated webs, the first shortest, thethird and fourth nearly equal, reticulate at the base, scutellate alongthe rest of the upper surface, claws short, strong, curved, rather acute,that of hind toe with a sharp pectinate inner edge.

Feathers of the head and neck exceedingly small and slender, of thefore part of the head stiff, hair-like and glossy; of the upper middlepart of the neck behind a little larger and soft, forming a slight longitudinalcrest; of the sides and hind part of the neck soft and downy. The feathersof the upper parts in general are remarkably small, narrow, tapering toa point; of the lower part of the neck stiff and pointed, of the breastand sides somewhat larger than those above, and softer. Wings long, rounded;primaries much curved, with strong square shafts; the second longest, thethird very little shorter, the first a little longer than the fifth, secondariesvery numerous, rather small, rounded, the inner longer and more tapering.Tail short, slightly rounded, of twenty-two feathers.

Bill greyish-white, tinged with brown, and marked with irregular spotsof pale carmine; upper mandible dusky towards the end, lower blackish fromthe middle to near the end. Bare space between the bill and the eye deepblue; eyelids pink; iris white. Feet black. The gular pouch is greenish-black,the ridges of its wrinkles lighter. The hair-like feathers on the forepart of the head light yellow, the rest of the head white; a stripe ofthe same margining the pouch to the middle of the neck, and extending alittle beyond, a short space between these two lines anteriorly, and thewhole of the posterior and lateral parts of the neck of a dark chestnut-brown,the small crest paler. The back and wings are dusky, each feather withthe central part greyish-white; the latter colour prevails on the scapularsand larger wing-coverts. Primaries and their coverts brownish-black, secondariesgreyish-brown, their outer edges greyish-white; tail light grey; the shaftsof the quills and tail-feathers are white in their basal half, black towardsthe end. The lower parts are brownish-grey; the sides of the neck and bodywith narrow longitudinal white lines. On the fore neck, below the darkchestnut spot is a smaller pale yellow mark, behind which the feathersfor a short space are blackish-brown.

Length to end of tail 52 inches, to end of wings 52, to end of claws53 1/4; extent of wings 80; bill along the ridge 13 1/4, along the edgeof lower mandible 14 1/4; depth of gular pouch 10, its extent along theneck 13; wing from flexure 24; tail 7; tarsus 2 1/2; middle toe 3 11/12,its claw 9/12. Weight 6 lbs. 4 1/2 oz.

The Female, which is considerably larger, resembles the male in colour,only that the neck is yellowish-white in its whole extent, without anybrown, and its feathers are stiff and not downy as in the male. Weight7 lbs. 12 oz.

Young.

Bill greyish-blue, its edges and unguis greyish-yellow; gular pouchdull greyish-blue. Iris brownish-yellow; bare space around the eye of adusky bluish tint, the feathers margining it yellowish-white. The feathersof the head and neck are less downy than in the adult, and those on thesides of the latter less elongated or pointed. The head and neck are darkbrown, as are the upper parts generally; the secondary and many of thesmaller coverts margined with pale brown; the primaries and their covertsas well as the tail-coverts brownish-black, with white shafts. Feet andclaws dull leaden colour.

In an adult female preserved in spirits the general peculiarities ofthe organization are the same as those described in the American WhitePelican. THE MANGROVE.

RHIZOPHORA MANGLE, Linn., Syst. Nat., vol. ii. p. 325.

The species of mangrove represented in the plate is very abundant alongthe coast of Florida and on almost all the Keys, excepting the Tortugas.Those islands which are named Wet Keys are entirely formed of mangroves,which, raising their crooked and slender stems from a bed of mud, continueto increase until their roots and pendent branches afford shelter to theaccumulating debris, when the earth is gradually raised above the surfaceof the water. No sooner has this taken place than the mangroves in thecentral part of the island begin to decay, and in the course of time thereis only an outer fringe or fence of trees, while the interior becomes overgrownwith grass and low bushes. Meantime the mangroves extend towards the sea,their hanging branches taking root wherever they come in contact with thebottom, and their seeds also springing up. I am at a loss for an objectwith which to compare these trees, in order to afford you an idea of them;yet if you will figure to yourself a tree reversed, and standing on itssummit, you may obtain a tolerable notion of their figure and mode of growth.The stem, roots and branches are very tough and stubborn, and in some placesthe trees are so intertwined that a person might find it as easy to crawlover them as to make his way between them. They are evergreen, and theirtops afford a place of resort to various species of birds at all seasons,while their roots and submerged branches give shelter to numberless testaceousmollusca and small fishes. The species represented is rarely observed onthe coast of Florida of a greater height than twenty-five or thirty feet,and its average height is not above fifteen feet. The land mangrove, ofwhich I have seen only a few, the finest of which were on Key West, isa tall tree, much larger and better shaped than the other, with narrowerleaves and shorter fruits.

Portions copyright © Richard R. Buonanno, 1995
Web version of John James Audubon’s work. “The Birds of America”
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