Diving pelicans: Avian missiles with brakes

Diving pelicans are a curious sight: they plunge from the sky like feathered missiles — wings cocked, heads tucked, beaks tracing an approach angle of almost 90 degrees — then hit the ocean in an explosion of wings and water and webbed feet, only to bob back to the surface in an instant, as if all that downward diving momentum never happened.

Brown pelican diving. Photo: Charles J. Sharp, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Turns out brown pelicans make a series of last-second body adjustments to keep themselves alive when they hit the sea from heights of up to 60 feet (the length of your average bowling lane). These adjustments not only protect their fragile bodies from damage, but also kill their momentum, ensuring that their impressive dives…well, bomb…and bring shallow results.

Here’s what the brown pelican does to keep itself safe in the seconds before and after impact:

  • On the dive down, the pelican takes a deep breath and uses that air to fill special compartments under the skin around its chest. These air-filled sacs act like air bags in a car, cushioning the pelican’s body on impact. They also serve as a big lifejacket, providing buoyancy to help arrest the pelican’s downward momentum once it hits the water.
  • Right before impact, the pelican lunges its head forward, using its long contoured bill to slice through the water’s surface tension like a hot knife through butter. The pelican pulls its wings straight back behind its body to protect its delicate wing bones from damage. And it twists its torso to the left to protect its trachea and esophagus, which are located on the right side of its throat.
  • Immediately after impact, the pelican opens its bill, which causes its large, stretchy throat pouch to open like a parachute and fill with water — up to 10 litres of it — further slowing the pelican’s momentum (and, hopefully, snaring lunch).

These adjustments happen in the blink of an eye, and they bring a diving pelican to a screeching halt, popping it right back up to the surface, safe and sound and ready for more.

Now the pelican can enjoy the fruits of its labour: it tilts its bill downward to drain the saltwater from its throat pouch and, with a few tosses of its head, swallows dinner whole.

Brown pelicans are incredibly accurate hunters. They enter the water at steep angles of 60-90 degrees, which means their aim is much less affected by the distortion caused by light refracting through water. These birds hit their targets more often than not.

And they’ve been perfecting their form for over 30 million years. (Yes, fossil evidence dates pelicans back that far!)

Here are some fun videos of brown pelicans diving (choreographed to music, no less!):

2 thoughts on “Diving pelicans: Avian missiles with brakes

  1. Hi Caroline,
    We are always in awe of the pelicans in Mexico. So amazing to watch and very entertaining. They are also very funny to watch on the beach. You can get very close to them. They are always waiting for handouts from the fish mongers on the beach 🤗

    • Haha – that’s great! I am becoming more and more of a bird person as I get older. They are such cool animals and very unique and impressive in how they adapt to thrive in their varied environments. Maybe one day I’ll see the pelicans in Mexico! 🙂

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