The Australian pelican was first given the scientific name Pelecanus conspicillatus in 1824 by the Dutch naturalist Coenraad Jacob Temminck. The species name ‘conspicillatus’ comes from the Latin verb ‘conspicere’ that means ‘to behold’ and Mr Temminck thought that it suited this huge bird as it seemed to have yellow ‘spectacles’ of skin around its eyes.
It is interesting that Mr Temminck chose the eye ring of the pelican as the feature most useful for naming, as this critter looks like it has been put together out of enormous and ill-fitting spare parts.
The Australian pelican has the largest bill in the world with a record size of 50cm in length. The bill has a huge skin pouch that hangs from the lower jaw that the bird uses as a net. When the pouch fully expands, it can hold up to 13 litres of water at a time but once something is caught, the bird will press its pouch to its breast, squeezing out the water and allowing dinner to be manoeuvred into a swallowing position.
The pouch and bill are usually a soft pink. During courtship and mating season this stand-out feature becomes a spectacular ‘signpost’ illuminated in orange, dark blue, pink or scarlet colours that the birds clap together and wave around like a flag.
An Australian pelican’s diet will include pretty much anything that fits into the pouch, including small birds and nestlings in times of drought. They will quickly learn to approach humans in a menacing manner demanding food and will rob other birds of their prey.
The wingspan of a pelican is about 2.3 to 2.6 metres, much wider than most birds and almost longer than the tallest humans. They aren’t that great at flapping, but are instead expert soarers, capable of staying in the air for up to 24 hours, using air currents to travel long distances with minimal effort.
Pelicans have astonishing feet. These big, rubbery, bluish-grey webbed appendages act as a landing platform and provide locomotion once the bird settles on the water. In flight, the bird tucks them up against its tummy; you can easily see them from the ground.
Huge wings, an aggressive manner, super hero style powers of sustained flight, big rubbery feet, a long brightly coloured bill, a squat square body and a pouch that is used as a flag. These features, I am sure you will agree, are all much more obvious than its small yellow spectacles.