Brown Pelican Airlines


“ …the brown pelican is one of the most remarkable birds on earth, a species that has changed little in the thirty million years of its existence, and to which respect is due if for no other reason than its hardy durability.”

—Joseph E. Brown, The Return of the Brown Pelican

A brown pelican surveys its surroundings.
A brown pelican surveys its surroundings.

The brown pelican, which is called “grand gosier” or “big gullet” by Louisiana cajun fishermen, is a huge comical-looking Gulf Coast and California bird whose appearance strongly suggests that it evolved from dinosaurs. I also suspect that it has taken a clue from American capitalism and formed its own airline.

Large Flocks

On a recent morning, I’m on the beach and notice a flock of at least 25 brown pelicans in the distance flying over the water in a straight line. As they get closer, the straight line starts to break up in a gently rolling mass like the slow rolling waves beneath them. The assemblage becomes a straight horizontal line and is soon a sooty gray speck on the horizon.

Coming down the pike is another group of at least 50 brown pelicans in a long, wavy line flying directly overhead. As seen directly overhead, they have heavy bodies and a long underwing pattern of brown and white and a scabbard-like bill. Some brown heads and necks of non-breeding birds are visible, as are the frosty, pale yellow heads and necks of the breeding ones. This is a real parade.

Brown pelicans are often here in smaller numbers, sometimes flying in a roller coaster-like fashion over the water, their splayed wing tips seemingly an impossible few inches above the water’s surface. Despite appearing clumsy, they are precise fliers who can fly between rolling waves. This maneuver, called “troughing,” looks daredevil-like and has caused me to hold my breath wondering if they made a bad mistake. Unscathed, the birds appear seconds later as this avenue offers protection from the wind with a pillow of air beneath them requiring less effort to fly.

Ten minutes later, another skein of 24 brown pellys come over the beach and flies over rooftops. Almost immediately it’s followed by a group of nine. One bird is definitely in the lead, but this is temporary as the pilots and passengers are interchangeable and take turns as leaders. This is to deal with wind resistance where the leader needs to exert more energy while those behind face less of it and use less energy. These groups are probably migrating.
Another group of nine fly over in a broken arrow-shaped form, also with a leader. This may be a “local” flight rather than a long distance one, as in Hawaii where flights go from island to island. Here in South Florida, they may go from key to key. Another skein of 14 flies in followed closely by five stragglers. This group has no discernible formation.

A breeding brown pelican strolls along the beach.
A breeding brown pelican strolls along the beach.

Winging It

A plane trip involves reservations, getting tickets, getting to the airport early, checking luggage, pre-flight boarding and instructions about what to do in case of an emergency, to which no one ever listens. A flight may have TV, movies, beverage and snack service. However, Brown Pelican Airlines, which has no stockholders, board of directors, mechanics nor baggage handlers and cannot be found listed on the stock exchange, doesn’t work that way. Somewhere south of here there’s probably a deserted beach set up as an airfield with a control tower. Inside dispatchers say things like ”BP Flight no. 25 you are cleared for takeoff. Air BP Flight no. 50 you are second in line for takeoff.” The flight numbers correspond to the number of brown pellys in the group.

These flights only require that a group show up. The birds don’t have to go through security and a boarding process. The crew and passengers are interchangeable and there are no frequent flier miles. There are no overhead bins, as they have no luggage. These flights are totally al fresco. A tail wind of 10 mph, which we have today, helps conserve the birds’ energy.


For meals, the ocean below has numerous self-service cafeterias, like the old Horn and Hardart automats which provided staples such as macaroni and cheese, baked beans, creamed spinach and coffee procured with nickels. When brown pelicans feed, they dive from as high as 60-feet for schools of small fish—menhaden and anchovies are favorites and occasionally sardines. Holding their wings partially away from their bodies, a long broken line of white resembling a modified lightning bolt is revealed on the underwings. The birds plunge bill first at an angle, doing a partial corkscrew turn before hitting the water. Wings have been flattened against their sides and enter the water, an 8.2-pound missile. There have been times when I could hear the splashes they made, often two of them.

Most of the fish that are caught in the bird’s open pouch, which holds about 2.5 gallons of water, are within two feet of the surface and that has been estimated to be less than two seconds until a fish is secured. The pelly will bob to the surface, bill down, letting the water drain out. Small fish trapped in its huge bill resemble so many Jonahs in a whale’s jaw. The pelican will raise its bill skyward and swallow multiple times. Sometimes the outline of large fish can be seen in the extended pouch.

My attempt at humor is in no way aimed at the brown pelican, but rather the number of large flocks that I unexpectedly saw. If anything it is an example of field humor that comes from the unexpected. I cannot but feel an inward smile spread through me at this magnificent creature. However, next winter in my beach combing, I am going to keep my eyes open for any signs of a control tower that may read Brown Pelican Airlines.

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Michael Givant, who writes our Bird’s Eye View column, resides in Woodbury and teaches a film course at Farmingdale State College in the Institute For Learning In Retirement and a foreign film class at The Longboat Key Education Center in Florida.


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