A pelican’s bill can hold more than its belly can

California brown pelicans

Ah, the pelican, what a bird, what a bird.

On a recent outing to the beach I had the chance to watch several California brown pelicans hanging out on the rocks. In fact one pelican was a real ham for the camera, turning its neck to the side and posing. Even Southern California’s wildlife has achieved celebrity status and is ready for the clicking of cameras.

Many pelicans were doing their stretching exercises to keep their gular pouch, the stretchy sac section of the bottom beak, in nimble condition and tip top shape. It reminded me of the limerick written by newspaper editor Dixon Lanier Merritt:

A wonderful bird is the pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican. (belly can)
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican. (hell he can)

But is this really true? Can a pelican hold more in its beak than its belly?

Brown pelican posing

According to several different websites, including the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the answer is yes. The California brown pelican can hold about three gallons in its bill and one gallon in its belly. But what is the point of being able to hold more in your bill than your belly?

For the answer, we must look at the way pelicans eat. The brown pelican fishes for food by plunge-diving. From as high as 65 feet, the brown pelican steeply dives, plunging into the ocean to catch fish and takes in a mouthful of water as well because its bill acts like a net. But since this built-in net doesn’t have any drainage holes the water and fish are a package deal.

Once the brown pelican catches dinner, the water drains out at a leisurely pace while fish remain trapped inside. Hence the reason for needing a mouth that’s bigger than your stomach.

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