feeding pelican

WaterLine photo by Capt. Josh Olive

You might think you’re doing the pelicans a favor by tossing them your fish carcasses, but feeding them like this can actually cause them serious injury or even kill them.

A while back, I was playing my djembe drum with friends at the Englewood Beach drum circle. As I was getting into the groove of the rhythm, I noticed a long string of brown pelicans flying overhead. Most of my close friends know I am a slightly insane birder, so when I poked my neighbor to look up, she just nodded and smiled.

I saw the beautiful graceful pelican flight as bringing us good karma. I have always been amazed how gawky these huge birds look on the ground compared to how magnificent they look in flight or on the water. They are strong fliers, twisting and turning in unison like the best of the Blue Angels.

I was lost in my drumming and thoughts of pelicans. I suddenly recalled my ex-husband’s story of buying a fat juicy hot dog out on a pier. He loaded it up with relish and onions and then walked out over the water. Just as he went to take a big bite, a huge brown pelican swooped in, grabbed his delicious hot dog and left him staring at his empty hand. Knowing him, he then most likely started verbalizing his displeasure. I can’t help chuckling at that story.

We have brown pelicans here all year. They love to hang out at the marinas and wait for the fishermen to come in with their haul, hoping for easy snacks. Of course, you shouldn’t feed them. It makes them dependent on handouts, and fish pieces with protruding spines or bones can seriously inure and even kill them.

When we’re relaxing at the beach, we often see pelicans gliding across the water or diving down to snag some fish in their huge beak. They scoop up small fish and water in their expandable throat pouches. Watch and you’ll see them tilt their heads to drain the water from their beaks and then put their heads back to swallow the fish.

Our pelicans are grayish-brown birds with yellow heads. During the winter to early spring breeding season, their sides become a reddish brown color. They nest in colonies on little islands and in the mangroves along the shore. When we do the Christmas Bird Count on Lemon Bay, we usually see hundreds of pelicans in the mangroves along Lemon Bay on Manasota Key. As we go by them, they sound like a huge colony of grunting hogs.


A brown pelican pair is monogamous throughout the breeding season. The male will choose the nesting site and does most of the construction on the nest, which may be as large as 30 inches in diameter. Two to four eggs are laid, which both parents incubate with their feet.

When the chicks hatch, they are fed regurgitated fish at first. Once they’re old enough, the parents bring them whole small fish. The young pelicans are able to care for themselves after they are about three months old; however, they will still beg for food and the parents may still feed them.

These birds are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. However, here in Florida, hundreds of pelicans die each year from getting entangled with abandoned fishing line. This line left by fishermen also endangers other sea life.

So we must be careful when we are out fishing to bring back any fishing line cut from our reels. Just a few feet is enough to tangle a bird’s wing or leg, and that’s usually a death sentence. If a cast lands in a tree or gets snagged, retrieve as much of the line as you can. It’s good karma!

Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.

Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.

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