Brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) are ubiquitous along our shores, but even native Floridians still marvel at their aerial acrobatics and their unusual appearance: big gray-brown bodies topped by tiny white-yellow heads with long beaks and a fleshy pouch. In the 1970s, brown pelicans were put on the endangered species list, their numbers nose-diving because of DDT and other pesticides. After those products were banned, the population surged, and in 2009, they were taken off the list.
Medieval Europeans believed that mother pelicans would wound themselves to feed their own blood to their offspring; Christians then adopted the bird as a symbol for Jesus.
Hovering up to 60 feet in the air, pelicans dive straight down, scooping up mouthfuls of water and stunned fish. (This distinguishes them from white pelicans, who do not fish this way.) They drain the water out of their pouch and swallow the meal whole.
Pesticides used in the 1960s and 1970s caused pelicans to lay thinner eggs, which cracked during incubation (pelicans stand on their eggs to keep them warm), pushing the species close to extinction.
Subcutaneous air sacks, which are attached to the bird’s respiratory system, help pelicans stay buoyant.
A brown pelican’s wingspan can push 8 feet, but the largest birds only weigh about 11 pounds.