An obvious dating clue: pelican horns

An American white pelican shows the breeding horn that forms this time of year. (Photos by Sharon Stiteler)

Pelicans are moving through and people have them on the brain. I’ve watched a few squadrons cruise over my home in Minneapolis, and my non-birding coworkers are quick to point them out outside of our office windows along the Mississippi River.

One day, a colleague approached me in my office and asked if I had time for a bird question – I always have time for a colleague’s bird questions.

“We were kayaking and saw pelicans and they had this thing on their beak,” she said.

On top, towards the center of the beak, like a flat horn?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Is that supposed to be there? Is it a disease?”

“That is a horn that they grow during breeding season,” I said. “Once the eggs are laid, it falls off. Pelicans literally get horny when they are ready to mate.”

Leftovers from the writer’s time banding American White Pelicans. Among old bird bands and wing tags, you would find the shed horns around the nests.

This time of year, American white pelicans get very flashy. You’ll notice that adult birds not only have a growth on their beak, but they grow some longer feathers on their head and they get the horn. It’s technically not a horn. Birds of North America Online describes it as “a highly fibrous, epidermal plate.” They can vary in size, and no one is certain what the purpose is for the growth. It is clearly part of the courtship, but are females attracted to larger horns or are other males intimidated by larger horns? Their function is not clearly understood. Of the eight species of pelicans in the world, only the American white pelican grows the horn.

Years ago, when I would visit pelican colonies and band the chicks, you could find the shed horns everywhere. I collected a few (and yes, I have a salvage permit so I can have the pelican parts) and they make for great trivia in my office or at birding gatherings. At first glance they resemble old, gross toenails.

It’s not out of the ordinary for birds to have brief visual clues of their “bare parts” to show that they are ready for the breeding season. Great egrets have a patch of skin at the base of their beak that turns vivid green when they are ready to mate. When turkey vultures are ready, they have a red bulge that protrudes from their chest. Wouldn’t it make our dating lives easier if we could get such obvious clues from our potential partners?

Categories: Sharon Stiteler

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