Probably the most observed and loved birds on Bribie Island are the iconic Australian Pelicans. They are likely to be seen wherever there is water and the Pumicestone Passage is one of their favourite haunts. With a wingspan of 2.3-2.5 m and a length of 1.6-1.8 m and weighing 4-6.8 kg they are extremely hard to miss. They are Australia’s largest flying bird. Their bills are longer than any other bird in Australia being 36-46 cm in length.
Featured image(above): Preening on the Beach
Attached to their bills are pink gular pouches which can hold up to 13 litres of water. At the end of their bills are large, yellow, claw-like hooks thought to help in the management of their prey. They belong to the Order Pelecaniformes which is a group of birds with four toes joined by webbing and one toe behind. Nostrils are almost closed which prevents water entering their airways when diving for food.
Because of this, pelicans breathe through their mouth. Their calls are a series of grunts and deep croaks. They fly with their heads pulled back, soaring with wings outstretched and using thermals to attain great heights sometimes up to 900 m and often travelling in V-shaped formation. If necessary they can remain soaring for up to 24 hours and can travel several hundred kilometres in one flight.
Males are larger than females, but their markings are similar. There are seven species of Pelicans in the world but only one in Australia. Australian Pelicans are also found in PNG, Western Indonesia and some of the Pacific Islands. They can be found all over Australia even in the arid regions where there is water. Pelicans begin breeding at 2-3 years and will nest at almost any time of the year depending on weather conditions and rainfall. If there is enough rain to fill the waterholes in the outback, pelicans will fly in their thousands to reach their favoured breeding grounds.
Waiting for a Handout
Lake Eyre when it fills with water is a favoured destination for a multitude of pelicans and other birds. Large colonies form at these sites and the breeding begins. Each year Pelicans choose a new mate for the season. For a short time, parts of their bills turn blue while parts of the gular pouches become red and yellow. Mating rituals take place when the females select their mates for the season. Up to eight posturing and fighting males follow a female until there is only one male left.
Flying in Formation
He is then taken to the nest site and remains for the season. Nests are just scrapes on the ground decorated with whatever is handy at the time. Two to three large white eggs are laid which are incubated by both male and female parents. Unlike other birds, pelicans incubate their eggs on their webbed feet. When hatched the chicks are naked, quite helpless and need to be protected from strong sunlight. The first chick hatched is larger than its siblings.
Diving for Squid
It takes most of the food and will sometimes attack and kill the smaller nestlings. Adults are able to tolerate extreme heat as they have a built-in cooling system. When it becomes very hot, they open their bills and vibrate their pouches which have a cooling effect. Eggs and chicks can be lost if parents endure too many disturbances. Chicks fledge at about 12 weeks. When the youngsters leave the nests they form crèches with up to 100 birds for several months. During this time, they learn survival and flying skills. Sometimes when the lakes are flooding in the outback pelicans leave Bribie Island for a short time to breed there while the water remains.
Flocks of Pelicans often follow fishing boats expecting titbits to be thrown overboard. Fishermen on the foreshore are another target for the ever-hungry Pelicans. Their diet consists mostly of fish, but they also eat crustaceans, squid, insects, turtles and sometimes the young of other birds. I have watched them forming circles and herding fish into a group then feasting on a trapped seafood smorgasbord. This is a wonderful sight to see and reminds me of a water ballet in progress.
Ready to snatch Refreshments
Pouches are used like nets to scoop up their prey which is manipulated till the heads are pointing downwards enabling them to be swallowed. When the pouches become filled with water, they press them against their bodies, and this allows the water to flow out. Pelicans can be affected by chemicals in the fish they eat which can cause loss of egg production. Other threats are habitat destruction, feral predators and litter left by fishermen, holidaymakers and residents.
It is very sad to see a pelican tangled in a discarded fishing line or choking on a plastic bag. Even so, the Pelican population is increasing. Life expectancy is between 10 and 25 years.