Pelican Keeper Chat

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The great white pelican is an impressive bird!

The great white pelican is an impressive bird!

If you have recently visited the San Diego Zoo, you probably noticed four new additions to the African Marsh exhibit across from Eagle Trail. These new birds may be young (a little over one year old), but they are hard to overlook. Often eliciting surprised gasps from visitors when seen up close, these bold birds quickly make a grand impression. Yes, the two male and two female great white pelicans Pelecanus onocrotalus are the source of many visitors’ questions. To find answers to some of those questions, I sought out Amelia Suarez, one of their keepers, and had a chat with her about those prodigious pelicans.

Whose idea was it to get pelicans for the African Marsh exhibit?

During a conversation I had with our bird curator, I asked if we could get a few pelicans for the Zoo’s African Marsh exhibit. I love pelicans! When I used to go to La Jolla Cove, I would see the cormorants and pelicans living next to each other. And while the cormorants and pelicans we have in southern California are not the same species as the ones we have at the Zoo, I thought they would go nicely together.

Do the pelicans have different personalities?
Definitely! They are all young, so they frequently act like curious kids and play with anything new. Three of the pelicans are hand raised, but one of the females was raised by her parents. She came to the Zoo very shy and didn’t want to come close to me during feeding sessions. She has since gotten over most of her cautious behavior and now politely takes food from my hand. She even vocalizes to me to let me know she wants her fish.

What preparations did you do before they came to the Zoo?
The biggest thing we did was to add some palm stumps to the exhibit for them to perch on. Most of the work we did was after they were introduced. We cut some vegetation back to make space for them to hang out. And they were so curious about visitors that we put up a perimeter fence and added a number of plants to keep them from getting too close to our guests.

What did the birds in the African Marsh think of their new flock-mates?
The saddle-billed storks weren’t thrilled with them initially. They had a long-established territory, and they didn’t want other large birds to push them around. There were a couple of mild spats between the two species, but the storks have since calmed down quite a bit, and they usually slowly move to another part of the exhibit when the pelicans are on the move.

The cormorants, on the other hand, tolerate them unless the pelicans get too close to the tree where they have their nests, and then the cormorants get agitated and—in unison—bark and warn the pelicans off.

Is feeding in that exhibit any different now?
For their size, they don’t eat much—just one or two large trout per feeding. (Note: depending on the time of year there are two or three feedings per day.) It just means a few extra fish in the bucket. Oh, and of course they want to be the first ones to eat, so the cormorants and storks have to wait their turn!

Do you have a favorite among the pelicans?
All four are my favorite! The males like to pick up fish and fling them halfway across the exhibit. They also help me clean by biting the handle of the rake or brush while I’m using it. The females are sweet; one runs up and leans on me when I enter the exhibit.

Do you have hopes to breed these birds?
We do hope that they will breed once they are sexually mature. I can see the parent-raised female being a good mom if she can attract the attention of one of the males.

What is one thing people would be interested to know about the pelicans that they may not know just by looking at them for a few minutes?
How big they are! I know that anyone can easily see that they are big birds, but when I’m standing next to one of the males, and he is flapping his wings, I realize how truly huge these birds are! (Note: A great white pelican’s wingspan can be over 9 feet!)

Mike Grue is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Australian Bird Keeper Chat.