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How Brown Pelicans Dive

Why don't they break their necks?

Brown Pelicans fly just above the surface of the water. They circle high, then diving headfirst, plunge under water to catch fish. But doesn't that hurt? Several adaptations protect pelicans as they dive. First, they have air sacs beneath the skin on their breasts, which act as cushions. Watch a slow-motion video of a pelican diving into the water, below.

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Full Transcript

How Brown Pelicans Dive

Written by Frances Wood

This is BirdNote! 
[Sounds of waves and surf]

Imagine a line of Brown Pelicans flying just above the breaking surf of the coast. 
Perhaps you’ve watched, and heard, these large, long-billed birds fishing. They circle high, then dive headfirst, plunging under water to catch fish.[More water and splash sounds]

But doesn’t that hurt? Anyone who has taken a belly flop off a diving board knows the powerful force of hitting the water.
Several adaptations protect Brown Pelicans as they dive, sometimes from as high as 60 feet. Air sacs beneath the skin on their breasts act like cushions. Also, while diving, a pelican rotates its body ever so slightly to the left. This rotation helps avoid injury to the esophagus and trachea, which are located on the right side of the bird’s neck. Pelicans have also learned that a steep dive angle, between 60 and 90 degrees, reduces aiming errors caused by water surface refraction. We know that pelicans “learn” this behavior because adults are better marksmen than young birds. [Splash]

Upon impact, the Brown Pelican opens its bill and expands its pouch, trapping small fish inside. Then the bird pops to the surface, spills out the water, and gulps down dinner [Splash]

To see a video of pelicans diving, begin at our website, I’m Mary McCann. [Splash]

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. Recorded by W.W.H. Gunn.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Chris Peterson
© 2015 Tune In to               March 2018          Narrator: Mary McCann
ID#032806BRPEKPLU        BRPE-01b

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