One morning on our recent passage north aboard our sloop, Songline, I was watching Pelicans, like I do.
Looking very much like prehistoric Pterodactyls, Pelicans sometimes hunt by gliding in a single file formation so tight that the distance between each is less than a quarter bird. Drafting in each other’s slipstream like Tour de France cyclists, they glide just an inch or two above the glassy morning water, riding upon the pressure wave created by their passage over the gently undulating ocean swells. Periodically one in the file swoops up and over the others to assume the position of leader in this highly coordinated dance that makes the “Blue Angles” look like amateurs. When their aerobatics scare up schools of flickering fish, they break formation and begin what appears to be independent operations, dive-bombing for their prey.
Their hunting behavior can be contrasted with their travel configuration, which is often conducted at higher altitudes using the familiar wing-tip to wing-tip “V” formation used by other flocking birds. When not foraging or traveling, the big birds appear to go about their business more or less independently, or in tandem with their mates.