Related BBC sites

Page last updated at 10:01 GMT, Thursday, 5 November 2009
Pelicans filmed gobbling gannets
By Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News


Adult pelicans swallow the young gannets whole

In a bizarre reaction to changing food supplies, great white pelicans have turned to eating live gannet chicks.

This adaptive behaviour, first revealed by biologist Marta de Ponte Machado, has now been captured on film by a BBC natural history camera crew.

On the island of Malgas in South Africa, the pelicans attack any gannet chick that is left undefended by its parents and is small enough to swallow.

As a result, entire gannet colonies are in danger of being destroyed.

The predatory behaviour is captured for the BBC natural history series Life.

Pelicans and gannets
It is bird eat bird

Cape gannets and pelicans are members of the same bird order.

Cape gannets (Morus capensis) have a wingpsan of up to 1.8m when fully grown and can live for up to 25 years.

The species breeds in just six places, of which one is Malgas island in South Africa.

Due to people overfishing sardine and anchovies off the coast of Southern Africa, the population of gannets has dwindled.

A change in food supplies is having another deadly impact, however.

Great white pelicans, which can have a 3m wingspan, are starving too, and their hunger is driving them to eat their smaller gannet relatives.

Around 700 pairs of great white pelican nest on the nearby island of Dassen.

Once the pelicans cooperated to hunt freshwater fish, but they soon learnt to eat chicken offal thrown out as waste by a nearby farm. As a result, their numbers increased significantly.

However, that food source has since been stopped, and the pelicans have turned to eating gannets instead.

Each day, hoards of the pelicans fly across to Malgas and wander through the gannet colony.

Cape gannets
Safe for now

The pelicans target chicks up to 2kg in weight, picking up any that will fit inside their massive bills and aren't defended by parents.

Because of the fish shortage, often both gannet parents leave their chicks to forage at sea, leaving their offspring particularly vulnerable.

"This unusual behaviour shows how adaptable and opportunistic pelicans need to be," says Patrick Morris, a producer of the Life series who oversaw the filming.

BBC cameramen Justin Maguire filmed the brazen bird behaviour at ground level, while Simon Werry took the aerial shots.

The predatory actions of the pelicans were first revealed by Marta de Ponte Machado, a doctoral student with the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa.

She has spent many years studying these birds and helped the BBC camera crew with its filming.

As well as plundering gannet chicks, the great white pelicans have developed a taste for live chicks on their own nesting island, Dassen, feeding on colonial breeders such as Cape cormorants, kelp gulls, swift terns and even African penguins.

"Pelicans gobbling gannets" is broadcast within the Birds episode of the BBC series Life at 2100GMT on BBC One on Monday 9 November.

Print Sponsor

A marvellous hummingbird display
03 Nov 09 |  Earth News
Gannet hunting prowess revealed
04 Mar 09 |  Science & Environment
Gannet colony's population spurt
03 Sep 09 |  Wales
Pelican swallows pigeon in park
25 Oct 06 |  London




From Science/Environment in the past week


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2018 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific