Bird Image Gallery
Bird Image Gallery

A pelican flies over Walvis Bay in Namibia. See more ­pictures of birds.

Martin Harvey/Gallo Images/Getty Images

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­You're strolling along the b­each when a large, peculiar-looking bird catches your eye. There are lots of gulls and sandpipers around, but this particular bird really stands out. It's rather squat and looks awkward as it walks around, but its bill is incredibly long compared to the rest of its body. When the bird spreads its wings, you see that it has a large wingspan. As it flies out over the water, you notice something ever stranger -- a loose bag of skin hanging around its neck. Even if you know nothing else about pelicans, you'll probably immediately recognize one by its most distinctive feature: the bag of skin, called a gular pouch, which stretches from the lower half of its bill to its neck.

­There are either seven or eight species of pelican, depending on who you ask (some scientists classify the Peruvian pelican as a subspecies of the brown pelican). All pelicans have a similar awkward appearance (at least, until you see them take flight) but they vary in their size, color, territory and behavior. Some species nest in trees, while others build crude nests on the ground or in rocks. Pelicans can weigh as little as 6 pounds (2.72 kilograms) and as much as 30 pounds (13.61 kilograms), and they live on every continent except Antarctica.

Pelicans are very social animals, building their nests in colonies. The brown pelican is unusual because it's the only species to feed by diving headfirst into the water, or plunge diving. Most other pelicans work together to herd schools of fish into shallow water. Then they dive in and scoop up the fish, often all at the same time.

Now that you know more about the pelican in general, let's get up close and personal with its most prominent feature.

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