BALTIMORE (WHTM) — Meet Wallace and Gromit, a pair of great white pelicans who live at the Penguin Coast habitat in the Baltimore Zoo’s African Journey exhibit.
The great white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus) is a very big bird, considerably larger than the American white pelican and brown pelican which we see in North America. In fact, it’s one of the largest flying birds in the world. It stands approximately 4 feet tall, with a wingspan of over 9 feet. (By way of comparison, the wingspan of a bald eagle is about 5-7.5 feet.)
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Great white pelicans range from Europe to Asia to Africa. They frequent both fresh and saltwater habitats –swamps, marshes, freshwater lakes, brackish lakes, lagoons, and deltas.
Their preferred diet is fish, which they scoop out of the water with their large bills. The “gular pouch” on their lower bill bows out when the pelican pushes it underwater. It can hold several gallons of water and, of course, a lot of fish. When the pelican lifts its head, the pouch contracts; the water filters out, but the fish stay. (Wallace and Gromit each consume about two pounds of fish every day.)
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the great white pelican as being of “least concern” because they are widespread and plentiful in the wild. But that doesn’t mean the species is safe. They face habitat loss (including prime breeding habitat) and have to travel long distances to find food because of overfishing. Humans hunt them for meat and leather. (The pouches are very popular for tobacco holders.) Fat from young pelicans is converted to oil for traditional medicine in China and India.
As a result, they are now a protected species under the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterfowl. Wallace and Gromit are at the Baltimore Zoo as part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Plan, which aims to maintain genetic diversity in captive populations, thereby increasing the chances for the species’ survival.