The next family in order comprises the curious and interesting Pelicans. They are, as is well known, birds of large size, ranging in length from about fifty to some seventy-two inches. They have short legs, very large wings which often spread nearly ten feet, for they are strong fliers, and a tail of twenty-two or twenty-four rather short, soft feathers. The most marked peculiarity is of curse the huge pouch which depends from the lower mandible, forming, as it has often been called, a regular scoop-net. The length of the bill in some species is fully eighteen inches, though the average length is only about fourteen or fifteen inches. As the bird is seen at rest on the ground it presents a very awkward and grotesque appearance, the neck being held in what would seem to be a very uncomfortable and “kinked” position, but an examination of the skeleton reveals the fact that the eighth or ninth vertebra is curiously articulated with the one in front and the one next behind it, so that it is actually impossible for the neck to be held straight. In at least one species, the White Pelican (P. erythrorhynchos) of North America, there is a very remarkable excrescence near the middle of the upper mandible, which is assumed only during the breeding season. This excrescence or “center-board,” as it is called, is described as follows by Mr. Ridgway: “It is assumed gradually in the spring, reaches its perfect development in the pairing season, and it is dropped before or soon after the young are hatched. Frequently it consists of a single piece, nearly as high as long, its vertical outlines almost parallel, and the upper outline quite regularly convex, the largest specimen seen being about three inches high by as many long. More frequently, however, it is very irregular in shape and usually less elevated.” Its function is purely problematical. Coincident with the shedding of this appendage in this species the “nuchal crest falls off, and in its place a patch of short, brownish gray feathers appears; this disappears with the fall moult, when the occiput is entirely unadorned, there being neither crest nor colored patch.”
The Pelicans (Pelecanus), of which ten species are now recognized, are widely distributed throughout the tropical and temperate regions of the Old and New Worlds, North America laying claim to three species. They are a very old group, for some nine fossil forms have been described, the oldest being from the lower Miocene of France. Their food consists almost entirely of fish, of which they capture great numbers.