Spot-billed Pelican

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Gary R. Graves, Ph.D.

Dr. Gary Graves had an early childhood fascination with birds that eventually led him to his role as curator of birds at the National Museum of Natural History.

Photo by Don Hurlburt, Smithsonian Institution

Dr. Gary Graves is a research zoologist and curator of birds at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History where his research focuses on the ecology, biogeography, and evolution of birds. His early childhood fascination with birds led to graduate studies at Louisiana State University and Florida State University: "I am unapologetically curious about natural history and the ways that natural history observations catalyze important ecological and evolutionary discoveries." His dissertation work focused on speciation of birds in the Andes Mountains of Peru. He has also conducted fieldwork in Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Colombia, Polynesia, Canada, and in more than half the states in the USA. His current research efforts are split between the analysis of complex data sets based on the collective resources of the World's great museums and conducting field research in Jamaica, the great forests of the eastern USA, and in the Sonoran Desert.

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Nesting colony of Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis)
Courtesy of David Hall, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, public domain


About Pelicans and Relatives (Order Pelecaniformes): Nesting

Pelecaniform birds (pelicans, ibis, herons, and spoonbills) usually nest in groups on islands or other isolated places. Colonies can number in the thousands, making for crowded nesting areas. Pelecaniforms tend to live a long time, and some return to the same nesting sites year after year. Individuals may even pair with the same mate again. Using twigs, aquatic plants, or other materials gathered by the male, the female builds a nest, sometimes just a few inches from nests of other females. The parents take turns incubating the eggs. They transfer heat from their bodies by wrapping their four webbed toes around the eggs. Pelecaniform chicks are typically born helpless and naked, and take a long time to mature (seven months in some species). Both parents care for them, feeding them with regurgitated fish and other food. Even after the chicks can fly, parents continue to provide food while the chicks learn hunting skills.

Malachite Sunbird (Nectarinia famosa) feeding on flower nectar
Courtesy of Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, via Wikimedia, CC-BY


About Birds (Class Aves): Feeding

All modern birds have bills and no teeth. The shape of a bird's bill says a lot about what it eats, for example whether it specializes in seeds (stout , cracking bill), fish (pointy, spearing bill), or plants (wide, serrated bill). Birds swallow their food without chewing, so it travels to the stomach whole or in large pieces. Bird digestive tracts have some special features for digesting chunky food. A pouch in their throat (the crop), is used to store food to be digested later, or regurgitated to feed the young. An extra, muscular stomach (the gizzard) grinds food up. Birds are endotherms, using heat they make internally to keep warm. While a few species allow their body temperature to drop at night (torpor), a nearly constant body temperature is maintained by most birds most of the time. Continuously making heat requires fuel to burn, in the form of food. So, birds spend a lot of time eating.