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Big Bird

Okay, fellow bird lovers, who knows which North American bird is the largest of them all? If you chose that Butter Ball turkey your family and in-laws put away last Thanksgiving, you’d probably be right, weight-wise, but we’d have to lift your Audubon Society bird-bander’s badge, nonetheless. The largest live, wild American bird or fowl is—come on, take a guess—the White Pelican? So says nature writer Hob Osterlund in this month’sissueof Nature Conservancy Magazine. But my authoritative Sibley’s Guide to (North American) Birds gives the nod to the California Condor (weight, 23 lbs, wingspan 109 inches, vs. 16.9 lbs. and 108 inches for the pelican). Still, the latter figures are mighty impressive when you consider that pelicans have to lift all that dead weight off the water from a standing start, while take-off for a condor is as simple as falling off a log—albeit, a very tall log.

We see a lot of pelicans, both the white ones and the much smaller brown variety, along the shores, estuaries and backwaters of San Francisco Bay. But I seldom get close enough to a White Pelican to gain a true appreciation of its prodigious size. In Mexico they’re called borregones, meaning “large sheep.” Seen from a distance, grazing in the shallows on schools of smelt and other small fry, that’s just what they look like.

In the air, however, those thick, incredibly awkward looking bodies are transformed into something ethereal— dazzling—as they spiral upwards on a summer thermal, hundreds of them, soaring into a cloudless blue sky, their huge white wings alternately reflecting or shading the intensity of the sun’s rays. They rise “like bubbles of champagne”, says Ms. Osterlund, “I watch them swirl above me and am cupped in the cone of the flute, giddy from all that shimmering effervescence.”

“Cupped in the cone of the flute?”—a bit gassy, but nice imagery, eh?


Bill Braznell

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