Hardly Friends at Sea
A gull riding on a pelican, oh, how wonderful! Or is it? Learn the new word kleptoparasitic.
My friend Bernie told me about a photograph he took when he was on his solo sail around the world. He was just arriving by dingy to clear customs in Anguilla when he captured the shot. It was of a laughing gull riding on the back of a brown pelican. Wow! I had to see that. One, it seemed so fantastic and two...what a great painting it would make. Sure enough, as you can see below from the included, grainy, old photo, that laughing gull was indeed, riding along on the floating pelican's back.
Bernie was a little disappointed upon re-seeing the photo he had taken. He had remembered the gull standing on the pelican's head and thought that was what he had captured on film.
I, however, was delighted.
I had a lot of questions. I asked Bernie if that was the only time he had seen a gull riding a pelican. He thought he'd seen it a few times while in Anguilla. He checked back through his journal and found that he had written of seeing a gull standing on the head of a pelican. He'd seen them several times.
What was the story? Was it a one off? Were they friends? An odd couple, like those great shots you see on the internet of supposedly interspecies friendships? When it comes to online animal buddies, some are real. Some aren't.
Was it a common occurrence among gulls and pelicans? This would indicate more behavior than personality. Was it some sort of symbiotic partnership, like the ox pecker and the rhino? I decided to investigate.
I found through a brief internet gander that gulls do sometimes ride on the backs or perch on the heads of pelicans. There are some great photos of this behavior. But the gulls are not buddies with their compliant mounts. The pelicans can really do nothing about this intrusion. It turns out that the gulls are “kleptoparasites” and are there to steal fish from the pelican's beak.
A pelican can pick up as much as three gallons of water in his beak when scooping up fish. Sometimes the fish fall out when the pelican is draining the water out of his beak before swallowing. That's when the attentive rider swoops in and takes what is not his. Kleptoparasitic is what they are, hardly friends at sea!
Of course this knowledge only sparked more of my curiosity. Is this behavior an example of animal culture? That's when individual animals learn habits from one another resulting in behavioral diversity between groups. I thought of the famous Japanese macaque, Imo who started to wash sweet potatoes. Her behavior was picked up first by her mother and then by all of her peers until potato washing was done by every other macaque on Koshima Island, where she lived.
Are these kleptoparasitic birds spreading a culture of deceit around Anguilla and Florida, where they have been observed?
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