How Brown Pelicans Dive After Fish Without Breaking Their Necks

The hefty coastal birds engulf fish as they plunge into the water from 60 feet up—all while avoiding injury.

This audio story is brought to you by BirdNote, a partner of the National Audubon Society. BirdNote episodes air daily on public radio stations nationwide.


This is BirdNote! 

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.

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.

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.

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



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

Written by Frances Wood

Narrator: Mary McCann

© 2015 Tune In to               March 2018