Even just to look at, all pelicans inspire a certain sense of awe. Since we acquired our delightful new pair of pink-backed pelicans in the summer, we’ve really enjoyed watching them!
If you’ve never seen a pelican in real life, you can probably still picture a big, pale-coloured bird with a long beak and a flappy throat pouch for scooping up fish. You might also remember Nigel the Pelican in Finding Nemo – the film-makers got it right, depicting him as a remarkably intelligent bird.
Pink-backed pelicans come from central Africa, where they live near shallow freshwater lakes, rivers and pools. They’re friendly and gregarious, living and breeding in loose social groups, even alongside other species. They build nests, mainly made of sticks, in trees or shrubbery and lay two or three eggs. Despite their size, pelicans cope well in trees thanks to their phenomenal feet. They have an extra web between the inner and hind toes, so each foot resembles three slices of pizza rather than the traditional two.
There’s a lot of competition among pelican chicks, and not all of them are regularly reared to adulthood. That’s part of what makes our new arrivals so special.
Our two new ‘pinks’ come from separate collections and were reared in different ways: one by hand, and one by its parents. Because they’ve had such different life experiences, our first job was to encourage them to bond with one another. We offered them a big fishy breakfast of roach and sprats, and whilst at first the whole concept was just too much for them, their appetites soon returned.
Our team here have seen pelicans before, but nothing prepared us for the sight of a hungry pelican with its beak open and eyes popping with excitement. We were also surprised to discover that they’re awful at catching fish from a distance. They’re getting better, but in the early days we had to adopt a routine of “ready, ready, ready… throw!”
We’ve been getting to know our pelicans for a few months, and we’ve already gone through so many stages of behavioural investigation. Luckily for them, they’ve just met their future trainer: Selina Reid has started work at WWT Slimbridge as our training consultant. Selina’s a specialist, with an impressive record of positive behavioural training in bird species.
Why do pelicans need a trainer? Selina helps birds, in collections like ours, to adapt to disturbance, travel, medication and change. As a result, these trained birds have a more relaxed and rewarding life in their new environment. Selina’s incredibly excited to be the face of the new species demonstrations. We’re looking forward to her updates over the next few months.