Plunge-Diving Pelicans & What’s With That Pouch?

My two previous posts presented the Brown Pelicans in flight and in portrait.  The hardest challenge with them has been their sudden  plunge-dives when foraging for food.  Here’s my best shots, albeit not totally in focus.  But, wow, how fun the challenge!

Plunge-diving Brown Pelicans are quite entertaining to watch.  They use their acute eyesight to hunt for schools of small fish from the air at heights as much as 60 feet above the surface.

When food is sighted, the Brown Pelican plunge-dives head first into the water at high speed, tucking and twisting his neck to the left to protect the trachea and esophagus from the impact.

The Brown Pelican’s body is also padded with air sacs just under the surface of the skin that cushion the force of impact when it strikes the water.

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Another dive……

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And another……

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Brown Pelicans consume up to 4 pounds of fish per day.

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As the Brown Pelican plunges into the water, its fleshy throat pouch, called the gular pouch, expands like a net to scoop the fish while also filling with up to 2-3 gallons of water.

Once the gular pouch is full, the Brown Pelican tips his head back, with beak to the sky, allowing the openings at the back of his beak drain the water away, leaving only the captured fish.

The Brown Pelican will then turn the fish in order to swallow them head first to prevent the fins from catching in his throat.

Sometimes they try to steal a meal from others as well.  This poor Cormorant didn’t have a chance when he surfaced with a nice size fish.  The Pelicans were immediately in the water and one successfully stole that fish.  The Cormorant just looked on in disbelief.

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You can see the fish outlined in the Brown Pelican’s pouch.

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Tip up that beak and down it goes!


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Brown Pelicans will perch and watch another ‘take the plunge’.  For sure to see if they themselves have a chance in stealing the meal or snatch up what is missed.

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In the next three-photo series, the Brown Pelican in the water seems to be chanting on the plunging Pelican!  Go!  Go!  Go!   🙂

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In addition to the Brown Pelican’s gular pouch being used as a fish net, it is also an aide in mate attraction as well as a cooling device.  When the Brown Pelican gets too hot, it opens its bill and flutters the sides of its pouch.

A closer look at that gular pouch…..

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When he turned his head, the gular pouch was back-lit for an interesting shot.

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Say, Ahhhhhh……..

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And again……

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I’ve always admired the comical, gawky Brown Pelican from others’ photos or during our short Florida trips in past years.  I enjoyed getting to spend so much time with them these last few weeks, giving me the chance to study them, and learn and share the Brown Pelican with you.


56 thoughts on “Plunge-Diving Pelicans & What’s With That Pouch?

  1. Donna these are absolutely wonderful and amazing. And I love your commentary. You obviously did a lot of research, which the rest of us can enjoy along with the photos. Thank you, as always, for sharing!

    • Thank you Susan! Getting to spend so much time around them for all these weeks, I really wanted to learn more about them, and enjoyed studying their behaviors. Always nice to share information to others who might not know! 🙂

  2. Wow, just super photographs! I know it’s not easy to catch those dives, they are so incredibly fast. Especially love the close-ups of the pouch. Amazing. I’m surprised they didn’t try to eat your lens. 🙂

    • Thanks so much, Lisa! You know me by now, I love the challenges that birds offer in their character and behavior skills. 🙂 I do think he could gobble the entire lens in one gulp! lol

  3. Fantastic photos Donna, I love pelicans and would love to watch them diving like that. Thanks also for the interesting info about them.

    • Thank you Sue, they are quite fascinating & entertaining to watch. Around the coastal marshlands at a fishing pier where I am these days, the pelicans draw quite a crowd of people. Sometimes I thought the pelicans really were throwing some ‘looks’, like good gosh, here they are again. lol You’d love it!

    • Thanks Denise! I’ve never had a chance to watch pelicans on a daily basis, so when I found ‘the spot’ to watch them while here in SC, I knew I had an opportunity I couldn’t ignore. I’ve always loved pelicans too, so it has been a real treat to study and photograph them. 🙂

    • Thanks Gunta, getting the chance to study them for these last several weeks required my need & desire to learn about them too. It is my hope always that I am able to educate a few others about birds through my posts beside myself. I am glad I did with you! 🙂

    • Thanks Michael! I’m originally from the Chesapeake Bay area and it’s more a rare sight to see a Pelican mid-way up the Bay. So it’s been a real treat to get to study and photograph them so much these past several weeks while visiting South Carolina. 🙂

  4. I have never seen brown pelicans , let alone this kind of diving from the white pelicans, so it is enjoyable to observe their behaviours as they fish from great heights. Those are big fish to swallow and I wonder if there is a chemical process that happens to help kill and digest such a large mouthful. The pouches are amazingly elastic with a fine network of veins showing in the backlit shots. For the images not to be sharp is , in my opinion, easily forgiven.

    • There are eight species of Pelicans, two in North America, the Brown Pelican & the White Pelican. The Browns dive the way I described, but the Whites do not, they feed while floating. Amazing, huh?! I wasn’t sure about their digestive ways, and didn’t find any info. But something has to occur you’d think. Thank you, Jane, for your awesome comments!

  5. Excellent post, Donna! Your dive shots are great! They are fun to watch and I enjoyed your info and commentary that went with your shots, too. I’ve seen Cormorants steal fish from each other but not seen a Pelican do the stealing. Neat!

  6. Amazing shots Donna! I am amazed also that your brown pelican dives in this way, quite differently to our Australian Pelican which uses several very clever fishing techniques, but have never seen it dive like yours. We see terns dive like this every day, but not pelicans. Yes it is in the learning and studying of the birds that brings great wisdom to us, we can learn so much from them.Thanks for sharing these great captures and enjoy your week!

    • Thanks Ashley! They have been great entertainment and a fun challenge. Besides our Brown Pelicans, out of the eight total Pelican species, only the Peruvian Pelican also plunge-dives for fish. So our American White Pelican does not dive either. Pretty cool stuff! Thanks again Ashley, I hope your week has been going well, mine so far! 🙂

  7. Marvelous pictures of these diving experts! I particularly love the last incredible capture, Donna! And your post reminds me I haven’t gone to the beach in ages 🙂

  8. Hey, Donna, I was researching gular pouches today with specific ref. to brown Pelis. On G-images, there you were with one of the fab shots from this post! Your photos are several dozen times illustratively better than mine. May I use 3 or 4 of them, duly credited (in addition to you name being on them, I mean) and a link to your site? Quite understand if you’d prefer not, though so no worries if that’s the case! RH

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