How Do Brown Pelicans Survive Those Death-Defying Dives Into the Ocean?

California's brown pelicans are one of only two pelican species in the world that dive for fish. . L F File/Shutterstock

If you've ever watched brown pelicans, you've likely witnessed a beautiful and surprising spectacle: The big birds, which have a wingspan reaching just over six feet, soar up above the water looking for fish. When they spot their quarry, they turn into a shooting arrow with their sharp bill aimed straight for the water. At high speed, they smack into the surface of the sea and scoop up their prey.

To see such a large bird bullet into the water is surprising. But even more so is the fact that they can do so without breaking their necks. How do they manage this feat? The trick is through a specialized bill, bones they inflate with air and that famous pouch of skin.

Pelicans dive from significant heights head first into the ocean, but special adaptations slow them down and keep them safe.
Pelicans dive from significant heights head first into the ocean, but special adaptations slow them down and keep them safe. David Porras/Shutterstock

KQED Science reports:

A number of anatomical adaptions enable the bird to take these dives in stride. The shape of its bill is essential, reducing “hydrodynamic drag” — buckling forces, caused by the change from air to water — to almost zero. It’s something like the difference between slapping the water with your palm and chopping it, karate-style.
And while all birds have light, air-filled bones, pelican skeletons take it to an extreme. As they dive, they inflate special extra air sacs around their neck and belly, cushioning their impact and allowing them to float.

Pelicans perfected the art of this fishing technique about 30 million years ago, and it hasn't changed much since. With that much practice and perfection under their wing, it's no wonder they're such masters of the strategy. Here's a short video that explains how the special adaptations protect plunging pelicans:

Brown pelicans made a wonderful comeback from near-extinction, when DDT threatened the future of the species. However, there are new threats affecting the birds today, including warming waters and overfishing reducing fish populations on which the pelicans feed.

Citizen scientists along the West Coast are participating in a semi-annual bird count, helping researchers figure out just how many brown pelicans there are along the shore. If you're interested in learning how to participate, check out KQED's article about the Audubon-organized counts and what they mean for brown pelicans from Washington to Tijuana.