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Gregory R. Mann, Ph.D. {ret.}

Peruvian Pelican

“Pelecanus thagus”

Though closely related, the Peruvian Pelican is almost twice as large as its northern cousin, the Brown Pelican. Also known as the Chilean Brown Pelican or as the Chilean Pelican, this species breeds along the Pacific Coast of South America in Peru and Chile. All pelicans and no other birds have a totipalmate foot or one in which all four toes including the hind one, are united by a web of skin. The name “pelican” comes from the Ancient Greek word pelekan (πελεκάν), which is itself derived from the word pelekys (πέλεκυς) meaning “axe”. Though still common, with about half a million breeding adults, the population has been negatively affected by strong El Niño fluctuations and changes in food fish populations. Peruvian Pelicans are easily observed from shore as they fly back & forth in near-shore waters by means of soaring interrupted by deep, methodical wing-beats. It lives on the west coast of South America, from Lobos de Tierra Island in Peru to Pupuya Islet in Chile. These birds are dark in color with a white stripe from the top of the bill up to the crown and down the sides of the neck. They have long tufted feathers on the top of their heads. The Peruvian Pelican breeds in large colonies on rocky coasts, feeding in shallow offshore waters along the coast on small schooling fish. This bird feeds on several species of fish. The main prey species is the Anchovies. Peruvian Pelicans feed by diving into the water from flight. Peruvian Pelicans can be observed regularly in common feeding frenzies with Southern Sea Lions, Dusky Dolphins, Blue-footed Boobies, Inca Terns and several gull species thereby avoiding food competition by fishing in different depths. The current population range is estimated is between 100,000–1,000,000 birds. In 1996, there were an estimated 400,000 Peruvian Pelicans in Peru. The El Niño phenomenon in 1997-98 made the Peruvian Pelicans migrate southwards reducing the Peruvian population in 99.4%. Although the population may currently exceed 500,000 mature Peruvian Pelicans, this is just a fraction of former numbers.

Peruvian Pelicans are dark in color with a white stripe from the top of the bill to the crown and down the sides of the neck; pale upper-wings; dark brown patch on humerals; long tufted feathers on head; facial skin dark with restricted pink around the eye; reddish bill tip; bill base yellow; blue striped gular pouch that is brighter during its breeding season. The main breeding season occurs from September to March. Clutch size is usually 2 or 3 eggs. Eggs are incubated for approximately 4 to 5 weeks, with the rearing period lasting about 3 months. This bird feeds on several species of fish. It feeds by diving into the water from flight. The Peruvian Pelican average weight is 7 kilograms and a length of 1.5 meters. Breeding takes place during the austral spring-summer (September-March). Settlement and courtship begin in mid-September. Three eggs represent the commonest clutch size. Laying is asynchronous, spreading from October to February, but a peak of laying seems to occur between mid-November and early December. Pairs nest in discrete groups of different sizes, ranging to several hundreds. The majority of chicks hatch between late December and early January. It seems that creching of chicks can take place when they are 3 to 4 weeks old. From the last week of March onward, chicks disperse to beaches or to the tops of cliffs for their first flight. Post-fledging feeding has been observed. Peruvian Pelican chicks fledge in average at 85 days of age with a mean asymptote body mass of 6,700 grams. However, a maximum mass of 7,300 grams can be reached at 54 days after hatching. Guano is a natural fertilizer made of seabird droppings. Peruvian Pelicans are considered as the main guano producing seabirds because of their large populations and their nesting habits. About 170 years ago, the world became aware of the guano and demand increased explosively causing an economic boom. Intoxicated by prosperity, the Peruvian Government pursued a single goal: Dig up the guano as fast as possible; ship it to United States, Europe and other parts of the world and count the profits. No thought was given to the welfare of the birds that produce guano; no thought for the enormous time required to amass deep, rich deposits. In the third quarter of the 19th century alone, the peak of mass exportation, Peru shipped an estimated 20,000,000 tons, worth 2 billion dollars. A few decades later with guano reserves depleted, Peru faced agricultural disaster for the rich fertilizer is absolutely essential together with irrigation to support its farms. The fresh guano crop dipped in 1909-1910 to 48,809 tons, a minute fraction of the country’s own yearly need. In 1908, the Peruvian Government created the Guano Administration Company that worked hard to recover guano-producing seabird populations, by constructing walls around the mainland breeding colonies that protected the birds from natural predators. With this and other measures, they managed to increase the guano bird population in Peru to about 40 million in the 1930’s.

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