BY ETHAN SHAW DECEMBER 14 2017
The United States plays host to two kinds of native pelican: the brown and the American white. Both are web-footed, giant-beaked, throat-pouched and fish-loving – but, otherwise, distinct as can be. The brown pelican is a graceful pterodactyl-esque seabird that hugs cresting waves and performs steep, extravagant plunge-dives after fish:
The American white pelican, a snowy-feathered giant which may be more than twice the brown's size, is as much a bird of inland freshwater as the seashore. Ponderous on the wing, it employs a laidback fishing method instead of aerial acrobatics, paddling and dabbling with its bill and sometimes whole head submerged. The birds often fish communally, trawling bunched together in unison and also cooperating to herd fish into shallows:
White and brown pelicans overlap in range, especially this time of year, when the cousins may share wintering bays and seashores on the US Gulf Coast, Mexico and Central America. And recently, on the western coast of Florida, an unusually intense encounter between the two played out in a harbour.
Amanda Hipps, a graduate student at Florida Atlantic University who studies the gopher tortoise, photographed the interspecies interaction, which she watched from a boat in the fishing village of Cortez south of Tampa Bay. She told me she noticed four white pelicans initially in the vicinity of the brown, and began taking pictures since the proximity allowed for an interesting size comparison. (Brown pelicans are plenty big birds, mind you, but the American white pelican – sometimes weighing more than nine kilograms [20 lbs.] and spreading black-rimmed wings that may be three metres [ten feet] across – ranks among the very largest birds in North America.)