The Road Of The Pelicans

As it is quite rare in Romania, the pelican has been declared a monument of nature. There are two species, which are hard to differentiate: the white pelican (Pelecanus Onocrotalus) and the Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus Crispus).The Dalmatian has red eyes and is slightly bigger than the white one which has yellowish eyes. One hundred and fifty years ago, the pelican was considered to be a common bird, which had its colonies at the mouth of the Tisa or on lake Balaton in Hungary. In Romania the colonies of white pelicans spread as far Calarasi, while the Dalmatian pelicans lived as far as the place where the Arges river flowed into the Danube. Back then, there were millions and millions of pelicans. Meanwhile, their nesting area diminished due to advancement of civilization. Fishing, the building of dams and drainage led to the labeling of the pelicans as ichthyophagous, therefore hunters and fishermen had the legal right to destroy them. Since 1910, the only nesting place in Europe has been the Danube Delta, apart from some other isolated, inconsistent spots in Bulgaria and Russia. Even in the Delta this spectacular bird is increasingly rare. Over the last sixty years, since the Commission on the Monuments of Nature started protecting pelicans, the situation has improved. Since 1950 the law has forbidden hunting, picking eggs, the destruction of nests and the catching of pelicans. What does a pelican colony look like? In spring, in March and April more precisely, flocks of pelicans arrive on "the great Pontic road" which crosses the Romanian seaside and ends in the Delta. Along this road there are some points of interest such as the marine lakes, the resting places and the food found on their way to the nesting places. The nesting is done in the colonies. The nest is built of stems and well-pressed leaves of thatch and reed, placed on a floating islet. Females lay two big, whitish eggs in each nest and start hatching, a process which lasts 35 days for the white pelican and 39 days for the Dalmatian. Both females and males participate in hatching. When we watch a colony of pelicans, we assume that all the hatching birds are of the same sex. However, if we watch more carefully we can see that females and males take turn. Their sense of orientation is extraordinary: pelicans very easily find the colony hidden in the islet, and they immediately identify their nest in it. When the colony is disturbed during hatching, pelicans desert it at once, and for good, in which case the eggs left behind become food for crows. In this particular situation, the pelicans have no descendants. This does not happen when the babies are out of the eggs. After ten weeks, the baby birds are able to fly, and after twelve able to feed themselves, but they leave their parents only the next spring. Have you ever seen pelicans fishing? One cannot forget this unique, spectacular show. They are excellent swimmers; they cannot dive, that is why they fish only in shallow waters. To this purpose they skim the water in a circle and flutter their huge, strong wings, which make the circle smaller and smaller. With the help of the peg they have on top of their beak they catch the fish and deposit it in the crop. Cormorants often participate in the hunting of pelicans, as they are excellent divers that fish in deep waters, thus catching what escapes the beaks of pelicans. How much fish does a pelican eat? The issue has been much discussed, even speculated on. Is the label "a notorious destroyer of fish" a rightful one? An adult consumes an average of two kilos of fish a day. Most fish are small, with no economic value, or sick, and therefore more easily to catch. That is why the pelican was also called "a sanitary bird." Therefore they cannot be blamed for the decrease of fish in the Danube Delta. At the end of September, these perfect flyers leave the Danube Delta, heading for the hibernating places in north-east Africa, especially in the Delta of the Nile. Pelicans can be rightfully called a genuine, living, scientific and tourist treasure.

by Klaus Fabritius