January 17, 2013 • 5:18 am

Matthew Cobb has pointed me to a wonderful website called “WTF, Evolution?“, in which photos of nature’s oddities are given funny captions.  It shows that if you were present when the first replicator formed, and asked to guess what creatures would evolve, you’d never even get close to things like the pig-nosed frog (see it: first on the page!).

Or the pelican. Here’s a recent post—a photo captioned: “This pelican looks like a urinal. Go home, evolution, you are drunk.”

Picture 3

And a famous pelican limerick that you may not know:

A Wonderful Bird is the Pelican
by Dixon Lanier Merritt

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

As Wikipedia notes (link above):

The limerick, inspired by a post card sent to him by a female reader of his newspaper column who was visiting Florida beaches. It is often misattributed to Ogden Nash and is widely misquoted as demonstrated above. It is quoted in a number of scholarly works on ornithology, including “Manual of Ornithology: Avian Structure and Function,” by Noble S. Proctor and Patrick J. Lynch, and several others.

That beak is gynormous.  In an incident that shocked and disgusted many in 2006, a pelican devoured a live pigeon in London after holding it in its beak for 20 minutes. A photographer captured the carnage, and the BBC reported:

Mr McNaughton, from the Press Association, said: “The pelican was on the towpath preening itself, and there were a lot of tourists watching it.

“Then the bird got up and strolled along until it reached one of the pigeons, which it just grabbed in its beak.

“There was a bit of a struggle for about 20 minutes, with all these people watching. The pelican only opened its mouth a couple of times.

“Then it managed to get the pigeon to go head first down its throat. It was kicking and flapping the whole way down.”

Photo by Cathal McNaughton.
Photo by Cathal McNaughton.

And a happier picture: a fish market in the Galápagos that I photographed in March, 2010:


h/t: Gattina

31 thoughts on “Pelicans!

  1. A colleague told me an apparrantly true story about a professor who took his class on a marine biology field trip. While traveling by boat to the field site he was giving a lecture. As he was ending his lecture with some dramatic words and a grand sweeping gesture, a pelican just then swooped down and dropped a huge load of shit. This exploded on his forehead, knocking him off the boat.

  2. The sheep market auction at Hawes,
    Attended by one who abhors
    The eating of meat,
    Is something to bleat
    About if you’re not carnivores.


    1. In another internet universe I was wondering if it would be worthwhile going to the horse market at Brough (near Hawes). I need some beefburgers.
      (The British press furore over some brands of “beef” burgers having detectable horse meat in them may have escaped the Transpondian majority.)

  3. I love pelicans, although I am not sure how I feel about them eating pigeons (which are gross).

    I haven’t read that limerick in years, but, yes, I did think it was Ogden Nash.

    A favorite of his for me, if only for brevity, is “Fleas”:


      1. Can you provide a good attestation for that? It sounds most unlikely. Lear’s limericks tended to have the same word (usually a place name) rhyming the first and last lines, and were not wildly funny. I don’t think the use of unlikely rhymes was his forte, but most of all, “belly” and “hell”, even misspelt, would have been considered terribly vulgar in his day.

            1. Quite right, I did that and there is just a short paragraph on Wikipedia. Of course I googled Dixon Lanier Merritt and so far the Pelican rhyme does appear to be his.
              Humble apology from me as I thought Ed.Lear. Lear wrote a couple of nonsense works on the Pelican. But not that one. Thanks for all corrections 🙂

    1. Which reminds me of the short(est?) palindrome: “Madam, I’m Adam.”

      But if you want brevity (without mythology), you can’t go past Piet Hein:

      or no existence.

      The only defence
      that is more than pretence
      is to act on the fact
      that there is no defence.

      Living is
      a thing you do
      now or never –
      which do you?

      Knowing what
      thou knowest not
      is in a sense

      As eternity
      is reckoned
      there’s a lifetime
      in a second.

      I’d like to know
      what this whole show
      is all about
      before it’s out.

      Man’s a kind
      of Missing Link,
      fondly thinking
      he can think.

      (Very Jerry!)

      Naïve you are
      if you believe
      life favours those
      who aren’t naïve.

      Problems worthy
      of attack
      prove their worth
      by hitting back.

  4. The white pelican migration through Baton Rouge in the winter, on their way to the Gulf Coast, is ridiculously awesome. Seeing 500 pelicans in the LSU Lakes at once is quite a sight for the first-timer (or anyone, really).

    1. First time I ever saw a white pelican was while driving through South Dakota. Until then I did not know they were frequent residents and migrants in the Mississippi Flyway. It was like seeing flamingos in Saskatchewan.

      1. The great thing about being a grad student in an ornithology-heavy natural history museum in southeast Louisiana is that I’ve learned all I ever wanted to know about white pelicans!

  5. As always much brain nudging and thought provoking posts and apart from the Pelican data the poem set me off. Just my kind of thing. I thought I would have a go myself.

    I took the point about blog and web referrals (guilty as charged your honour). So here is my version of a Pelican rhyme (detail) purloined from Wikipedia.

    Most gregarious the water bird Pelican
    with a pouch the size of a jerry can
    cooperative feeder
    colonial breeder
    when in flight is far from pedestrian

    Such a wonder the avian Pelican
    guzzles much more than a Gannet can
    soar glide or skim
    whatever its whim
    quick off the mark this antelucan

    Regards Ropey alias Strungout.

  6. Mykonos, Gr. has a several ‘mascot’ pelicans that are absolutely enormous. I think if they stretched they could peek over a small car.

  7. I remember the limerick as being “A marvelous bird is the pelican” with the rest being as quoted; but I see the weight of evidence is against me.

  8. Pop culture pelican gripe:

    The pelican character in Finding Nemo, voiced by Geoffrey Rush, should of course be an Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus), which is white, with black upper wings and tail, and a pink bill as in the top photo. There are no brown pelicans in Australia. What a travesty!

  9. About 5-6 years ago I was in the Parque de la Paloma in Benalmadena, Spain. This wonderful park has a small lake and at this time, a number of pelicans. Sadly, they are no longer there.

    It was one evening when we were walking past the lake when we saw a most wonderful sight. A flock of pelicans, perhaps 30-40 of them, were performing what I can only describe as a choreographed dance routine.

    There was classical music playing over the PA system and it certainly appeared as if the birds were moving in time with it. That could have been illusory though.

    The birds formed a rectangular raft on the lake and swam back and forth in a zig zag pattern, periodically dipping their heads into the water or raising their bills to the sky.

    It seemed to me that the birds might be working together to produce a wave that might disturb the lake bottom sediment and thus bring fish up where they might be eaten.

    Unfortunately I had no camera to document this and have not found an online video good enough to show this behaviour.

    1. Cooperative fish-herding behaviour is what pelicans do best – it comes to them more natural-like than nomming pigeons.

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