This article is from
Creation 45(1):28–31, January 2023

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The not-so-ponderous pelican


© Ondřej Prosický | Dreamstime.comtwo pelicans alighting from water

Watching a large passenger jet such as an Airbus A380 or Boeing 747 take off is an amazing sight. Weighing some 400 to 500 tonnes as they ascend into the air, one readily marvels at these mighty feats of engineering. Yet they pale in comparison to the remarkable designs with which our Creator has populated the skies. The largest birds soaring across the heavens are truly beautiful to behold. One such bird is the pelican.

Pelicans are found on every continent except Antarctica. Of the genus Pelecanus, there are eight living species. Brown pelicans are the smallest, with a wingspan of 2–2.3 m (6.5–7.5 ft) and weighing 3.5–4.5 kg (8–10 lb). The largest on average is the Dalmatian pelican (shown here landing) with a wingspan of 2.7–3.5 m (9–11.5 ft) and weight of 10–13.5 kg (22–30 lb),1 though the great white pelican has been measured with a 3.6 m (11.8 ft) wingspan.2 However, relative to their size, pelicans are among the lightest of birds.

How adroitly can a big bird fly?

Being so large, pelicans often look very awkward as they waddle about on land. Yet a pelican can take off and be airborne with as few as five flaps of its wings.3 Pelicans appear far more majestic when airborne, and are extremely clever at saving energy when flying.

Seabirds such as the wandering albatross are known to be able to also fly long distances with very few wing-flaps. They do so by exploiting the energy of so-called ‘wind shear’, available some 10–20 metres (35–65 ft) above the ocean surface, using a technique termed dynamic soaring.4 However, this requires the wind speed to be above about 30 kph (19 mph). If it drops below this, an albatross out at sea is forced to rest on the water surface till it picks up.

Pelicans, however, use two different methods to aid flying. The first is the well-known thermal soaring used by many birds (such as eagles). Uneven heating of the land (e.g., when darker areas like plowed fields absorb more sunshine than lighter ones) causes the air above the warmer areas to heat up more and thus rise faster. When flying over land, pelicans use these thermal updrafts to rise to an altitude of over 4,200 m (14,000 ft).5 They then glide for hundreds of kilometres while searching for suitable places to forage and breed, or to locate another ‘thermal’.

In this way, pelicans can stay aloft for up to 24 hours.6 A fibrous layer deep in their breast muscles holds the wings rigidly horizontal while they do so.

© Steve Allen | Dreamstime.comone pelican in flight

Additionally, pelicans can glide long distances during calm conditions by travelling along the crests of shoaling waves, just centimetres above their surface.7 Such waves produce localized updrafts as they approach the shore, which pelicans take advantage of. Using this method, termed wave-slope soaring, a pelican gains forward momentum and kinetic energy. It converts this to height by peeling off and upwards just as the wave begins to break. The altitude gained is used to glide downwards and offshore to the next approaching wave. By linking subsequent waves, the pelican can travel a considerable distance along a shoreline with limited flapping.7 (Albatrosses have also been seen using this method when there is little to no wind present.7)

Using a theoretical model they developed, researchers at the University of California San Diego7 were able to quantify the energy saved through wave-slope soaring. In typical ocean conditions, waves of about 2 m (6.5 ft) were estimated to produce a 5 m (16 ft) updraft, reducing the pelican’s flight energy expenditure by 60–70%. A relatively small increase in swell size or decrease in flight height allowed an energy saving of 100%!7

Besides increasing scientific understanding, it is hoped the study may assist to design better algorithms to control drones that need to fly for long periods over water.8 Once again the Master Designer continues to demonstrate how masterful His creation truly is.

Its beak can hold more than its belly

Pelicans have remarkable extendable pouches on their bills known as gular pouches. Gular skin is an area of featherless skin that hangs from the two loosely articulated bones of the lower mandible (lower beak or bill), joining it to the neck. It can be found on such birds as cormorants, grouse, and frigatebirds. Other vertebrate taxa (male orangutans, some species of gibbons, walruses, and many amphibians) have a comparable anatomical structure referred to as a gular, throat or vocal sac, or a gular fold.

Reprinted from Acta Biomaterialia 118 (2020) 161–181 with permission Elsevier.fig1_crimped_structure_of_gular_sac
Fig. 1. Crimped structure of gular sac. (a, b) Macroscopic crimping along the gage length of a transverse section; (c) Schematic representation of a magnified view of the section through the gular sac tissue parallel to the pigmented grooves containing melanocytes. The inner layer of collagen consists of oriented fibres, with shorter and smoother coiling bordering the dermal outskirts (SSE = stratified squamous epithelium).

The pelican uses its pouch to capture food. The lower jaw bones are capable of bowing outwards, and the flexibility of the gular skin allows it to operate like a large scoop. This flexibility comes from a combination of wavy collagen and corrugated grooves (fig. 1),9 structured so as to enable the skin to stretch three times as much sideways (across the pouch) as it does longways (from the tip to the rear of the beak). Pouch muscles can then be contracted, and the head inclined, to squeeze out excess water so the prey can be swallowed.10

Some early Christians identified the pelican as symbolic of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and pelicans are often seen in heraldry as representing redemption, self-sacrifice, and atonement. This stemmed from the mistaken belief that a pelican would pierce her chest to feed her young with blood if there was insufficient food available (among other myths).11 The actual behaviour that gave rise to this myth is that the pelican presses its beak against its chest to allow the young to feed from the food in the gular pouch.

Reprinted from Acta Biomaterialia 118 (2020) 161–181 with permission Elsevier.fig2_feeding_mechanics
Fig. 2. Similar design for similar feeding mechanics. (a) Gular sac of Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis); (b) Ventral groove blubber (VGB) of rorqual whales (Balaenopteridae).

Studies have noted that the gular pouch structure is very similar to the ventral groove blubber (VGB) of many baleen whales, including the blue whale—fig. 2. Secular scientists attribute such similarity to ‘convergent evolution’,9 i.e., evolution supposedly just happened to reach the same design solution independently in two or more separate groups, rather than both having inherited it from the same ancestor. But it is far more reasonable to view such features as the result of having the same Master Designer, our Creator God.

High diving? Not a problem

While all birds have hollow bones, the skeletons of larger birds, such as the pelican, have a greater proportion of air-filled spaces, making them exceptionally light. Indeed, the skeleton of the pelican makes up just 10% of its body weight.12 Additionally, pelicans have a special layer of air sacs under the skin. As a result they are very buoyant and sit quite high in the water.11 Most pelican species bob for fish at the water’s surface, but the brown pelican dives from up to 18 m (60 ft)10 at 65 kph (40 mph).13 The Peruvian pelican also dives for food, but from a lesser height.

Diving at an angle of 60 to 90 degrees, pelicans take a deep breath to fill the airways-connected cavities of their bones, stiffen the muscles surrounding the neck vertebrae to prevent them breaking, and rotate slightly to the left while folding their wings back to the rear.12 The air sacs under the skin cushion the impact, and the gular pouch assists in the reduction of forward momentum when the pelican opens its beak.11 The shape of the bill is also important, reducing hydrodynamic drag caused by the change from air to water to almost zero. Effective diving and marksmanship improves as a bird matures, demonstrating the intelligence to compensate for the effects of refraction. Due to refraction of light at the water’s surface, the fish are not where they are seen to be, and the pelican needs to ‘aim off’ from where they see the fish. Pelicans are also strong swimmers and have webbing between all four toes.

Evolution or not?

Until recently, the oldest known pelican fossil was a beak found in southeastern France and assigned a ‘date’ of 30 Ma (million years).14 The almost complete beak was structurally identical to a modern pelican beak. More recently, a single pelican tibiotarsus (leg bone) was found in Egypt’s famous Valley of the Whales fossil site.15,16 ‘Dated’ at 36 million years, it too was “remarkably similar” to known living pelican species. Nonetheless, reason was found to justify it being given a new species name, even though it was only a leg bone.

In short, there is no evidence that pelicans have ever been other than pelicans. When we view such fossil evidence through the lens of Scripture rather than evolutionary assumptions, we see a beak and a leg bone from members of the pelican kind, fossilized during Noah’s Flood, around 4,500 years ago. The original members of that kind, which likely also includes today’s shoebills and hamerkops, did not evolve from a protozoon. They were created on Day 5 of Creation Week, and survived the global Flood on board the Ark.


When we observe the majestic pelican, whether soaring, swimming, diving or feeding its young, we see one more clear instance of God’s “invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature” visible in His creation (Romans 1:20).

Posted on homepage: 22 April 2024

References and notes

  1. Dalmatian pelican, phoenixzoo.org, acc. 1 Aug 2022. Return to text.
  2. White Pelicans aka Great White Pelicans, beautyofbirds.com, 16 Sep 2021. Return to text.
  3. Nicolaus, M., Brown Pelican takes off, youtube.com/watch?v=LeTQYafPIxY, 16 Dec 2018. Return to text.
  4. Described in detail in Catchpoole, D., The albatross—master of the ocean winds, Creation 40(3):28–31, 2018. Return to text.
  5. Shannon, H. and 3 others, American White Pelican soaring flight times and altitudes relative to changes in thermal intensity, researchgate.net, Jan 2009. Return to text.
  6. australian.museum/learn/animals/birds/australian-pelican, updated 9 Dec 2020. Return to text.
  7. Stokes, I. and Lucas, A., Wave-slope soaring of the brown pelican, Mov. Ecol. 9(13), 2021. Return to text.
  8. University of California San Diego, The intricate dance between waves, wind, and gliding pelicans is worked out for the first time, phys.org, 21 Apr 2021. Return to text.
  9. Dike, S. and Meyers, M., On the gular sac tissue of the brown pelican: structural characterization and mechanical properties, escholarship.org, 2019. Return to text.
  10. Mancini, M., 10 fun facts about pelicans, mentalfloss.com, 28 Nov 2017. Return to text.
  11. Saunders, W., The symbolism of the pelican, catholiceducation.org, 2003. Return to text.
  12. Lloyd, S., The Australian pelican: a bird of superlatives, disjunctnaturalists.com, acc. 1 Aug 2022. Return to text.
  13. Deep Look, how do pelicans survive their death-defying dives? youtube.com/watch?v=BfEboMmwAMw, 25 Apr 2017. Return to text.
  14. Hecht, J., Pelican fossil poses evolutionary puzzle, newscientist.com, 22 Jun 2010. Return to text.
  15. El Adli, D. and 3 others, The earliest recorded fossil pelican, recovered from the late Eocene of Wadi Al-Hitan, Egypt, J. Vert. Paleontology, 41(1), 2021. Return to text.
  16. Bates, G., The valley of the whales: A famous desert—full of marine fossils, Creation 44(3):12–15, 2022. Return to text.

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