Congratulations! It’s 2 Boys? 3 Girls? 5 Aliens??
Finally! Pass out the cigars. Peace River Wildlife Center’s resident brown pelicans usually build nests and breed in November and December. Last year our first pelican chicks hatched on New Year’s Day. This year our recalcitrant parents started much later and their first chicks hatched in early March. We have experienced a high mortality rate in previous years with the newly hatched chicks and have found a little intervention helps them to thrive. With the injured parents unable to nest where they would naturally be safer from predators and less adept at traversing the nests, the first few nights of a hatchling’s life can be a dangerous time. These neonates are brought into the hospital and placed in incubators overnight for the first few days of their lives. In the morning they are taken back to their nests and their mothers resume their care. When the babies are about a week old they will stay in the nesting area, just behind the pelican pond at PRWC’s educational display area.
Fun fact—while the pelicans are nesting we do not clean the area where the nests are located as thoroughly as we normally would so as to not disturb the birds. So that wonderful smell is not from lack of attention on our part, but due to our greater diligence in deference to the new families. Okay, maybe that “fact” is not so much “fun” as “funk”.
The tiny pink alien-looking hatchling begins life by pecking his way out of the egg using his egg tooth to pip a hole in the widest part of the egg then rotating his body to cut the cap off of the shell. By the fifth day of his life he turns purple and looks even more like an extra from Men in Black. Fluffy white down will begin to emerge on the rump around day 10 and cover the body by day 25. The juvenile brown plumage will replace the down, starting at the scapulars by day 30. Interestingly it is at this point that the pattern of the feathers resembles a greyish brown heart on the back of the downy white chick. By the time the juvenile is 70 days old he will have acquired his complete juvenile plumage.
Unable to hold his head up, the hatchling initially thrashes his head from side to side to eat pre-digested fish regurgitated by both parents onto the nest. (PRWC has a great video of one of our head start hatchlings eating chopped fish on our Facebook page for those of you able to access it.) As he gets more coordinated he will reach into the parent’s pouch to intercept the fish being regurgitated. When he is ready to leave the nest, the fledgling will often weigh more than an adult bird. The increased mass acts as a stored energy source as the youngster learns how to forage for himself.
As the weeks pass our hatchling will start to get stronger and more independent. He will emerge from the nesting area to explore his surroundings. By one month he can begin to experiment with flight. Most pelicans begin to leave the nest permanently at three months of age. The PRWC babies eventually discover that they can follow the visiting healthy pelicans and fly out of the open air enclosure during the day and do so for increasingly longer periods of time. Initially they will spend a few minutes soaring over Charlotte Harbor and work their way up to spending one and then many nights away from the Center. Eventually the older fledgling, or “teenager”, will fly back in to our pelican pond occasionally only at feeding time, sometimes with a friend or two in tow. They scarf down as many fish as they can, then rush back out to more important tasks. Any parent of a teen knows the drill. I wonder if pelicans suffer from empty nest syndrome or if they are thrilled that “housekeeping” services will resume.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM