Explanation of the deformed beak of an American white pelican

American White Pelican

In the ‘Since you asked for it’ section in every issue of BirdWatching, editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and their behaviour. Here’s a question from our January/February 2019 issue.

Q: I took this photo of an American White Pelican at Lake Poinsett, South Dakota. The color of the bird’s beak extended to its throat, and its beak looked deformed. I would love to hear your thoughts on this bird. — Steve Snook, via email

A: I don’t think it’s a deformation but rather a big fish partially extending the cover. The shape evokes the tail of the fish. White Pelicans have very large expandable pouches that can hold up to 3 gallons of water and several pounds of fish. (Yes, the “pouch contains more than its belly.”) Unlike the brown pelican, which dives from the air to feed, the American white pelican dives to fish in shallow water, and a high percentage of its diet food consists of species such as carp and suckers. It is not uncommon for them to attempt to swallow anything they can grab a hold of, including carp over 2 feet long. Since the fish are alive, they twist and contort as the bird fights for it to descend headfirst. This allows the fin spines to not snag in the pouch or esophagus, but can sometimes get stuck. It is difficult to say whether this happened in this case.

View reader photos of the American White Pelican

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