The Great White Pelican is indeed one of the most interesting birds in the avian species. It is capable of the feats of multiple birds, such as extended flight, and even swimming. However, the characteristic that makes this bird unique is the fact that it has a “gular pouch” within it’s beak. However, before I talk about the pouch, I’d like to talk about the flight of the Pelican.
The wingspan of the Great White Pelican ranges from 7 to 12 feet, rivaling that of albatrosses. Males are bulky at 20 to 33 pounds, while the females are smaller at 12 to 20 pounds. Regardless of their weight, the Great White Pelicans fly very well and efficiently by tucking their neck in and extending their beaks forward to produce the most thrust. Furthermore, the pelicans fly in a “v-formation” often, in order to reduce the group’s drag.
They are even able to take off from the water! This feat is difficult for such a heavy bird. Since they are large, they require a large amount of speed to lift themselves over the water and into the air.
Once in the air, however, it is easy to see their skill. These proficient flyers often fly in groups as well – as seen on this great video (0:45). As shown in that video, they work to support each other, even while flying. This brings me to explaining said support system. As shown in that video, the Pelicans are able to stay mobile even on a shortage of food; they can fly from one coastal nest to another in search of the largest stores of fish.
However, there is not always food around. In this case, the birds will eat anything that will fit in their throats.
Their methods of doing this is through the use of pouches, which can, unbelievably but truthfully, hold 3 times the amount that their stomach can – about 3 gallons compared to the stomach’s 1 gallon. With that much weight, can a pelican still fly? The answer to that question is “no”. The pelican would be unable to accurately fly, since it requires the extension of it’s neck to move the leftover food into the esophagus, but requires the neck to be compressed to fly. However, even with these limitations, the pelican is still a very unique avian to study.
Engineers today look at birds and insects that display unique attributes or aerodynamic ability, but even a bird as awkward looking as the pelican can be useful – while in air or on ground. Thinking practically, the pelican’s versatility with the water, if replicated, can be used to explore sea and coastal life. This can offer uses such as under-sea exploration, documentation of a ship’s travels and could even offer a coast guard aid for rescue operations. The gular pouch is particularly interesting because it could be used to retrieve different specimen for study. If combined with the sea-exploration, it could be used as an amphibious device that is capable of viewing things that we are unable to see undersea, then take those things, and bring them back to a laboratory that may be waiting on the coast. Quick, efficient, and helpful. Creating a mechanical version of the Great White Pelican may indeed be difficult; a machine that can carry multiple gallons, it’s own body weight and oppose gravity would be an immense achievement. However, the amount of good that would come out of it certainly makes the strange bird a worthwhile challenge to recreate.