Brown Pelican on plunge dive (Pelecanus occidentalis)

The giant American White Pelicans that we’ve seen a few weeks back are beautiful to watch, but their feeding repertoire consists of a single act: scooping with the beak. The smaller Brown Pelicans can do that, but they also have a more dramatic feeding move: plunge diving. In the video, one of these birds has just swallowed a good-sized fish in a previous dive, and now takes off for seconds (or thirds, I don’t know). The bird circles the water at about 30 feet elevation, all the time scanning the water with its penetrating eyesight. When it spots a possible meal, it puts on the air brakes and begins to convert itself into a dive bomber. Being a gangly creature that betrays its dinosaur ancestry, the pelican does not make a slick, smooth entry like an Olympic diver. Rather, it crashes into the water with legs akimbo and wings stretched out behind it. It makes a big splash. That impact may well shock the fish into paralysis. Under water the bird opens its bill and gulps up the water around the fish with the fish in it. It then spits out the water and keeps the fish.

Brown Pelicans have been filmed plunge diving from a height of 60 feet. They’ve also been recorded doing a low-level variation by plunge diving from just a foot or two above the water. In plunge diving, the bird never completely submerges. Fish deeper than about 3 feet are probably safe from all but the biggest and most experienced among the Brown Pelicans. It’s a skill to be learned; the young ones aren’t nearly as successful as their elders.

Plunge diving is a versatile weapon. It’s also a method of fishing that individual pelicans can use without relying on assistance from their mates. The White Pelicans typically forage in groups advancing in a front, driving fish ahead of them. They’ve been seen forming semicircles to drive fish to shallow waters. Brown Pelicans also forage in groups, but they can plunge dive as solo hunters if they want to.

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