10 Fun Facts About Pelicans

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iStock

Here’s a scoop for you: Pelicans are awesome. They’ve got interesting feet, spectacular hunting habits, and throat pouches that can trap a lot more than fish. Here are 10 things you might not have known about these eccentric birds.

1. THE PELICAN FAMILY IS AT LEAST 30 MILLION YEARS OLD.

The earliest pelican fossil on record is a 30-million-year-old skull that was found in the Oligocene deposits of France. Paleontologists have also uncovered younger material from places like Germany, India, Kenya, Peru, Australia, and North Carolina. Today, there are eight living species and you can find some combination of them dwelling on every continent except Antarctica.

The question of where pelicans fit on the avian family tree has been debated for centuries, though genetic evidence now suggests that their closest extant relatives are the bizarre-looking shoebill and a wading bird known as the hamerkop.

2. THEY DON'T STORE FOOD IN THE POUCH ON THEIR BILLS.

The large, fibrous skin pouch that dangles from a pelican's bill is called the gular pouch (or, occasionally, the gular sac). Many people mistakenly believe it’s used to store food, like a built-in lunch box. The idea was popularized by a limerick of unknown authorship:

“A wonderful bird is the pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belly can.
He can hold in his beak enough food for a week.
But I’ll be damned if I can see how the helican."

While the rhyme is amusing, it isn’t accurate. In reality, pelicans use their gular pouches as a means of capturing food—not as a place to keep it tucked away for extended periods. The highly-flexible sacs can expand or contract, and the lower jaw bones they’re connected to are capable of bowing outwards, which enables the birds to use their sacs as fishing nets. Once a pelican captures its prey, the bird drains any water it may have accidentally captured with it by tilting its head and contracting those pouch muscles. (Fun fact: Some species can hold three gallons’ worth of liquid in their gular sacs.) Usually, the prey is swallowed immediately after the water purge.

3. PELICANS DON’T JUST EAT FISH.

In 2006, Londoners were shocked when a pigeon was swallowed whole by a great white pelican in front of some horrified kids at St. James's Park. Attacks like that aren’t unusual: Although pelicans specialize in eating fish, they also prey on crustaceans, amphibians, turtles, and—yes—other birds. If it can fit down their throats, it’s fair game.

4. TWO SPECIES PLUNGE-DIVE FOR FOOD.

The brown pelican is a keen-eyed predator that can spot a fish swimming under the ocean’s surface even while flying 60 feet above. Its bigger cousin, the Peruvian pelican, also has great vision. Once a target has been spotted from above, the pelicans plunge into the sea bill-first at high speeds—and often from a height of several stories. When they collide with the prey, the impact force usually stuns the victim and it’s then scooped up in the gular pouch.

It’s a dangerous stunt, but pelicans have numerous adaptations that keep them from injuring themselves when they smack into the water. To keep their neck vertebrae from getting broken, they stiffen the surrounding muscles as they dive; by throwing their wings straight backwards, pelicans can avoid fracturing any of the bones in the appendages on the unforgiving waves. Air sacs under the skin around their neck and breast area inflate before the bird hits the water’s surface, and the gular pouch behaves like an air bag: the instant a bird’s jaws are thrown open under the water, its forward momentum is slowed. Good form takes practice. Young brown and Peruvian pelicans struggle with their marksmanship at first, but over time, they get better at successfully dive-bombing fish.

5. SOME HUNT IN GROUPS.

Most pelicans don't dive bomb their prey; they scoop it up while treading along on the water’s surface. To increase their chances of success, the birds occasionally form hunting parties, gathering in a U-shape and beating their wings on the water to corral fish into a tight cluster—or drive them into the shallows.

6. THE AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN GROWS A TEMPORARY “HORN.”

An impressive bird indigenous to North America, this pelican stands around 4 feet tall and sports a 9-foot wingspan. Every year, something weird happens to the adults. Breeding season for American white pelicans lasts from late March to early May. When it arrives, a broad, flat, yellow or orange “horn” appears on the upper bills of sexually mature birds (both male and female). At some point in May, the fibrous structures fall off, to be replaced with brand new ones the following season.

7. ALL FOUR OF A PELICAN'S TOES ARE UNITED BY WEBBING.

Water birds tend to have four toes on each foot along with some degree of webbing. But in geese and ducks, the webbing is only present between the three toes that point forward. None is connected to the fourth toe, which—in the aforementioned species—is small and oriented in the opposite direction. Pelicans are different. They have totipalmate feet, which means that on each foot, there’s webbing that connects all four toes. Other birds with this kind of arrangement include cormorants, gannets, and boobies.

8. THEY PLAYED A SURPRISING ROLE IN THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN ART.

In medieval Europe, it was believed that whenever food grew scarce, mother pelicans would intentionally stab themselves on the breast with their beaks and then use the blood to feed their chicks. It's a noble idea, but it's a myth that probably has something to do with the gular pouches of Dalmatian pelicans, which turn an orang-reddish color during the breeding season. Maybe an onlooker saw one preening and got the wrong idea. Regardless, the myth of bloodletting pelicans struck a chord with Christian artists, who compared the gesture to the sacrifice Jesus made on humanity’s behalf. Thus, the motif became widespread in Europe during the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. A 1611 edition of the King James Bible featured the image of a breast-piercing pelican. The symbol also appears in a 1575 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.

9. THEY'RE MOUTH-BREATHERS.

As this video from Ohio University explains, pelicans technically have nasal openings. However, in all eight species, the nostrils are sealed off, buried under the beak’s horny sheath. This doesn’t mean that the cavities are functionless, though: The hidden nostrils house special glands which remove excess salt from the blood stream. Since pelicans and other maritime birds ingest sea water to survive, this trait is a real life-saver. Because their nostrils are walled-off and clogged up by desalinizing glands, it should come as no surprise that pelicans predominantly breathe through their mouths.

10. BROWN PELICANS HAVE MADE A REMARKABLE COMEBACK OVER THE PAST 50 YEARS.

The insecticide known as DDT, which rose to prominence during the 1950s and 1960s, infested whole food chains. After it was sprayed on crops, it was consumed by earthworms, and run-off ensured fish got a dose, too. In turn, these animals were transferring the substance to the various birds that ate them. Although DDT didn’t kill many avians directly, it did have a knack for weakening their egg shells. As a result, the populations of many beloved species—including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and brown pelicans—took a hit, and the brown pelican all but vanished in vast swaths of the country.

A 1938 census had counted 5000 breeding pairs of brown pelicans in Louisiana. But in 1963, not a single brown pelican sighting was recorded within the state. Texas birders observed similar declines. While early declines were caused by hunters and fishermen, these later declines were pinned on industrial pollutants and insecticides like DDT. Then, a badly-needed break came when public outrage drove the Environmental Protection Agency to ban DDT in 1972. Since that time, the brown pelican has reversed its once-gloomy fortunes. Reintroduction campaigns helped the birds bounce back in Louisiana, Texas, and elsewhere. The brown pelican was listed as endangered in 1970, but in 1985, brown pelicans in a few southern states were removed from the list. Then in 2009, the species was taken off the list entirely.

The Poison-Detecting Secret Weapon of the Middle Ages: Unicorn Horn

A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551
A woodcut of a unicorn from 1551

In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Europeans knew that unicorns were real. After all, their horns were the treasured possessions of royalty, nobility, and even clergy. Charles VI of France had one, as did Lorenzo de Medici, and Danish rulers sat on a throne carved out of them. Queen Elizabeth I had a fully intact horn she used as a scepter; it was valued at 10,000 pounds—roughly the cost of a castle in her day. In fact, unicorn horns were considered so valuable the Elizabethan dramatist John Dekker wrote that one was "worth a city."

But unicorns horns weren't prized just for their beauty or rarity, or as tokens of extreme wealth. They were believed to be powerful defense against disease—and poison.

Fierce But Pure

Oil painting of a woman and unicorn by a follower of Timoteo Viti
Chastity, oil painting by a follower of Timoteo Viti

For an animal that never existed, the unicorn got around. The ancient myths of India and China mention unicorn-like animals, as did the tales Greek travelers brought back from India and other far-flung lands. The earliest Greek description is from the historian Ctesias, who wrote around 400 BCE of a large, agile animal with a white body, dark red head, and a long horn on its forehead. About a hundred years later, scholars translating the Old Testament interpreted a horned animal known in Hebrew as re'em as a unicorn (though modern translators prefer the term auroch, an extinct species of cattle). Writing in the first century CE, Pliny the Elder described the unicorn is "the fiercest animal, and it is said that it is impossible to capture one alive. It has the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead.”

From the beginning, accounts of the unicorn emphasized their healing and purifying properties. Ctesias wrote, "Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons if, either before or after swallowing such, they drink wine, water, or anything else from these beakers." Similar accounts appeared for centuries: Around the 3rd century CE, the Greek intellectual Philostratus wrote that "the Indians make drinking-cups from this horn, which have such virtue that the man who drinks from one will for one whole day neither fall ill, nor feel pain if wounded, nor be burned by passing through fire, nor even be affected by poisons which he could not swallow at any other time without harm."

By the 12th century, a German nun known for her saintly visions, Hildegard of Bingen, recommended a paste of powdered unicorn liver and egg yolk as a cure for leprosy, although she conveniently noted that it could fail if the "leper in question happens to be one whom death is determined to have or else one whom God does not wish to be cured." Unicorn hide was also recommended in boots and belts, partly as prevention for that greatest scourge of the Middle Ages: plague.

Belief in the healing powers of the unicorn focused especially on its mysterious, twisting horn. The substance, often called alicorn, was associated with great purity as well as healing, sometimes with religious overtones (the purity of the white animal was thought to be connected to Jesus Christ, and the horn to his cross). Hunters in search of a unicorn were supposed to lure the animal with a female virgin, capturing the animal once it fell asleep in her lap.

A Common Deception

Narwhal tusk
A narwhal tusk

Of course, no such hunters were ever successful. Objects portrayed as being made from unicorn sometimes came from rhinoceroses or mammoth fossils but most often in Europe from narwhals, which were hunted by the Vikings in the North Atlantic. The Vikings harvested the narwhals’ spiraling tusks and sold them on to traders who either didn't know, or didn't care, about their true origins in the sea.

Once obtained, alicorn could be taken in many forms. Powdered, it was applied to dog bites and other wounds or consumed as treatment for plague, gout, and other diseases. The influential German physician Johann Schröder recommended it for childhood epilepsy. And although other physicians numbered among the earliest skeptics, apothecaries used unicorns widely in their potions. Eau de licorn—water purified by the introduction of unicorn’s horn or by being poured through a hollowed-out segment of horn—was also widely sold and reputed to have health benefits.

While the extraordinary cost of the intact horns made them showpieces for the rich, powdered unicorn horn was an affordable remedy for the average citizen. This was largely because other substances could be easily substituted: horse hoofs, fossils, and other types of horn. In fact, the widespread problem of fraud led to frequent tests of the authenticity of the horn itself, including presenting it to spiders and scorpions and observing to see if they avoided it or died. If they did, the item was thought to be genuine horn.

Poison-Proof

A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns
A page from a 17th-century French medical text discussing unicorns

Poisoning was particularly feared during the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance by the back-stabbing royalty and nobility keen to maintain their positions, not to mention their lives. Such an insidious crime required extraordinary measures: While European royalty kept other poison-detectors, including rubies, bezoar stones, and griffin claws, unicorn horn was a favored material for protection as well.

Whole unicorn horns were deployed on dining tables as poison detectors, while fragments of horn, called touches by the French, could be touched or dipped to plates of food to detect the presence of toxins. They could also be hung on chains or mounts of precious metal (actually less valuable materials, pound for pound, than the horn itself). French royalty had utensils made with alicorn, while other members of the European nobility had the horn inset into jewelry. The horn was expected to provide an alert to the presence of poison by changing color, sweating beads of moisture, or actually steaming. Alicorn might also be dipped into water or run over the actual linens and wall hangings in a banquet hall. Goblets fashioned from unicorn horn were also made across the continent; some believed these would shatter upon contact with a contaminated beverage.

While some medical writers, such as the famed French surgeon Ambroise Paré, were skeptical of the powers of the unicorn horn, many others believed in its merits. The Italian scholar and naturalist Andrea Bacci wrote a defense of the horn's use in 1573, telling the story of a man who consumed a poisoned cherry but was saved thanks to unicorn horn dissolved in wine. He also described an experiment in which two pigeons were fed arsenic, but the one who was given some scrapings of unicorn horn recovered and lived. The other died two hours after being fed the toxin [PDF].

But by the 17th century, the myth of the unicorn had begun to tarnish. European travelers to the Arctic brought back tales of the living narwhal, and further missions to other continents disproved the existence of unicorns by process of elimination, since no such animal was ever sighted. In July 1661, the men of the newly formed Royal Society put unicorn horn to the test: They placed a spider in a circle of powdered unicorn’s horn to see what would happen. From from being repelled by the horn, as writers had long claimed, the spider immediately scurried across the powder to escape. The men repeated the experiment several times, each with the same results. Their trial helped sound the death knell for credulous belief in the magical properties of unicorn horn.

The loss of value resulted in the disappearance or destruction of many precious specimens. Items once said to be made from unicorn horn are still in some museum collections, and very occasionally turn up for sale—still bearing their historical value, though no longer imbued with the mysterious properties that once made them worth a city or a castle.

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