African Birdlife
Breakneck Exploits Image Credit: African Birdlife
Breakneck Exploits Image Credit: African Birdlife

Breakneck Exploits

Drinking techniques of Pink-backed Pelican

Mark Muller

THE HUGE BIRD launched itself off the top of a thicket of Gomoti figs and dropped low over the water as it gained speed, heading towards us. As it approached it stopped flapping its wings and, gliding in smoothly to within centimetres of the glassy surface, opened its huge bill a fraction and dipped it into the water, resembling an over-sized skimmer.

But this was no skimmer – it was an adult Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens. We watched in amazement as the pouch in its huge lower mandible instantly filled with water and the bird’s head was whipped back under its body. At that point it laboriously regained its normal flying position, water spilling from its pouch, then tilted its head to the sky and gulped down most of the liquid.

Ali and I looked at each other in amazement and she exclaimed, ‘Did you see that? How on earth did it not break its neck?’

IT WAS LATE October 2012 and at the request of Ker & Downey Bo tswana we were conducting a census of the Kanana heronry, one of southern Africa’s largest heronries and a breeding site for a wide diversity of other birds, located in their concession area in a fairly remote part of the central Okavango Delta. We had been trying to accurately count a large group of nesting Pink-backed Pelicans and their juveniles when we first saw this method of drinking which, to our knowledge, has not previously been recorded.

Initially we assumed that it was probably an isolated instance of a display by one particular individual and that after experiencing some kind of painful whiplash it would not rep


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