Soaring Pelicans

Earlier this summer, I looked up on a bright, sunny day and saw a quartet of black and white figures soaring overhead. Initially, I thought it might be a formation of kites or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) because I saw no flapping as the group wheeled about. With the help of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s awesome Merlin app, I was able to identify the soarers as American white pelicans – not a species I’d expected to find flying along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains! (Turns out, they breed on lakes around here.)

The reason I saw so little flapping is that the birds were riding thermals. As the sun heats the ground, air near the surface warms up and begins to rise due to its buoyancy. Pelicans interested in flying between breeding and foraging grounds will start testing the thermals early in the day, as soon as they begin to form. As the heating continues, the intensity of thermals strengthens and they extend higher into the atmosphere. This is where the birds can really excel at using atmospheric energy for their flight. Pelicans will circle within a thermal until they reach roughly the middle of its height. Then they will glide, gradually losing altitude until they reach another thermal where they can climb without expending their own energy. With a 2.7 meter wingspan and a relatively low drag coefficient, the pelicans can glide and soar remarkably well. Researchers have even suggested using them as a sort of biological UAV for studying atmospheric dynamics! (Image credits: D. Henise, M. Stratmoen; research credit: H. Shannon et al., pdfs – 1, 2)

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