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American White Pelican

It's more than just a pouch.

Fish-eating birds come in different forms. Small birds like terns and kingfishers dive for minnows and shad; eagles and ospreys grab fish from the surface and tear them into bite-sized pieces; and herons and egrets spear their prey and snatch it from the water. But those aren’t the ways of the pelicans. Instead of stabbing, snatching, and diving for food, pelicans scoop their prey from the water. And with the longest beaks in the bird world and a fleshy pouch that holds three gallons of water, they can grab a lot of fish with a single scoop.

Despite Dixon Lanier Merritt’s tongue-in-cheek homage to pelicans, these birds can’t hold enough food for a week, but they can easily catch and swallow fish that are up to a foot long. Once in a while a pelican might catch an even larger fish, which struggles and flops in the bird’s pouch like a person stuck in a hammock. Pelicans don’t toss out the big ones—they twist and turn until they get the fish’s head pointing to the back of the throat, and then they start to swallow. It can take a long time to swallow a large fish, but pelicans are tenacious.

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