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How Do Pelicans Survive Their Death-Defying Dives?

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Unlike American White Pelicans, who scoop up fish at the water’s surface, California’s brown pelicans rocket down from the sky, plunging toward the ocean from as high as 65 feet. This episode of Deep Look explains how brown pelicans survive these death-defying dives.

A number of anatomical adaptions enable the bird to take these dives in stride. The shape of its bill is essential, reducing “hydrodynamic drag” — buckling forces, caused by the change from air to water — to almost zero. It’s something like the difference between slapping the water with your palm and chopping it, karate-style.

And while all birds have light, air-filled bones, pelican skeletons take it to an extreme. As they dive, they inflate special extra air sacs around their neck and belly, cushioning their impact and allowing them to float.

Even their celebrated pouches play a role. A famous limerick quips, “A remarkable bird is a pelican / Its beak can hold more than its belly can…” That beak is more than just a fishing net. It’s also a parachute that pops open underwater, helping to slow the bird down.

Read more about the brown pelican at KQED: Volunteer Brown Pelican Count Aims to Measure Recovery of Once-Endangered Birds.

Next, watch brown pelicans soar above a school of California devil rays as the rays perform flying somersaults through the air. Really.

Plus, another bird with gular skin: The Greater Sage-Grouse.

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