Do Pelicans Deserve Their Cruel Fate?

Ransom Riggs

Death is stalking the pelicans of America's West Coast. By the hundreds, they've literally been falling from the sky, only to wind up disoriented in parking lots, people's yards, and freeways where more and more are being struck by cars. Ornithologists are baffled: the pelicans' swollen feet seems consistent with domoic-acid poisoning — an ocean toxin that sometimes affects sea birds and mammals — but the acid hasn't been found in significant levels in recent seawater tests. Other symptoms don't match up.

Some people say it's karma; that the birds are "only getting what they deserve." My friend Jackson Landers, an amateur ornithologist and longtime anti-pelican activist, writes: "a large proportion of pelicans are child molesters. They attack chicks in nesting colonies, forcibly separating them from the others before raping them. This is not a joke. Ornithologists refer to this as 'forced copulations with nestlings.'"

That sounded so wild I had to look it up. He is, as it turns out, not kidding. From an article in The Wilson Journal of Ornithology:

We defined forced copulations (FC) with chicks as any interaction during which an adult attempted to mount, or actually mounted and copulated with, an unfledged nestling. In all FCs, nestlings appeared to resist the actions of adults by struggling not to be pinned and attempting to escape and/or dislodge the adult during copulation motions. ... [Observed pelicans] sought out an isolated chick that was not part of a pod, and violently jabbing and biting it. The adult then forced the chick to the ground and pinned it by the neck or back of the head using its bill, followed by attempted mounting and/or copulation movements lasting approximately 15-30 sec. Fledged juveniles may be mistaken for adult females in some species, but there is no obvious adaptive explanation for forced copulations with unfledged chicks. The motivation for forced copulation with unfledged chicks is therefore unclear.

I've got a motivation for you: pelicans are jerks. Another example: something like 80% of pelicans are guilty of either fratricide or infanticide. When pelican parents make a nest and lay eggs, several may hatch, but in most cases pelicans only ever intend to raise one chick. The other eggs are a form of "insurance," and once a dominant chick is identified -- usually by the stronger chick attacking the weaker -- the parents will begin selectively feeding their children, starving the weak one. Known as "hatching asynchrony" to ornithologists, and murder to people with a conscience, it involves the weaker chick eventually being pushed out of the nest, if not killed outright.

It's time for some video evidence. Landers writes, "If you have any remaining doubts about the inherent evilness of pelicans, I refer you to the following video of a pelican strolling about in a London park with a number of pigeons and ducks in a most companionable way, before suddenly seizing one of his fellows and swallowing the struggling bird whole. Obviously I'm all in favor of predation but this seems more in the manner of a betrayal."

And as if that weren't enough, then there's the cat-biting. To wit:

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Some will say that mankind cannot impose its morality on the animal kingdom; others maintain that these sick pelicans deserve their cruel fate. We are merely presenting the facts -- what do you think?