June 12, 2019

Herding Pelicans

There are more pelicans at the lake than I’ve seen previous years.  Many of them like to cruise along the shoreline.  They amble along slowly ahead of me, seemingly hesitant to expend the energy needed to become airborne and fly away.  I sometimes feel like I’m herding them as the group joins other groups and the numbers seem to multiply.

Now that I’m not rushing to be at the office first thing in the morning to see a patient, I’m fostering a new habit.  I paddle a circuit along the shore of Cherry Creek Reservoir first thing in the morning, early, before it gets too hot and hopefully before the jet skiers arrive. I suppose I should take up bird watching as well as there are no shortage of these feathered things hooting, cawing, crowing, warbling, and squawking in the trees and reeds that surround the lake. It’s either a symphony of birds or that other word, cacophony.  Whatever it’s quite the morning wakeup.

Pelicans appear to take pleasure in soaring high in the thermals above the like.  Why is it that they do it?  Certainly, they are not birds of prey scouting for scurrying things down in the grass.  Nor are they scavengers looking for the dead and dying.  If anything I’d want to say they take pleasure in simply soaring higher and higher on the rising updrafts.  But that would be ascribing emotional motives to them, saying that they do this for fun?  Is fun a motivating force in a pelican’s life?  Maybe it serves some meditative function for them.  Maybe it is a pelican’s equivalent to praying?  

Pelicans at Cherry Creek Reservoir

The most peculiar thing about pelicans is that they are mute.  As far as I can tell they do not vocalize, at east that I’ve noticed. That’s odd for a bird as most of us can easily name distinct sounds that various types of birds make. We even have verbs for each of them; geese honk, chickens cackle, crows caw, turkeys gobble and so on.  What do pelicans do?  As far as I can tell, nothing.

According to the Cornell Ornithology Lab, “Adults are usually silent.”  Young chicks do mage some grunting sounds and if you go the lab’s webpage on pelicans you can listen to some grunting pelican chicks, part of a recording made in 1961 by Randolph Little in Montana: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/American_White_Pelican/sounds

Contemplating this silence of pelicans bring me back to a disturbing article I read this morning by Nicolas Kristof in the New York Times.  Kristof wrote about the damage childhood malnutrition causes in large populations around the world.  Kristof is visiting a village in Guatemala where half the children are stunted both physically in stature and mentally in cognitive function due to malnutrition. He writes in the Mayan village 70% of the children are stunted.  Word wide a quarter of children are stunted.  

Kristoff does something sneaky, he contrasts this tragic report with short sidebars about the modern world food extravagances, contrasting a photo of a cute but way undersized baby with a description of the luxurious foods offered at a restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan called Serendipity 3 that offers a $295 hamburger. (or for those not so famished, it sells a $214 grilled cheese sandwich).

I find myself wondering how it is we can be so silent about this.  It would seem that this is an issue that we all might all agree is tragic and that we might all act together to alleviate or reduce childhood hunger. 

Kristof points out, “Studies find that malnourished children do less well in school, and the mental impairment is visible in brain scans.

The implication is that billions of I.Q. points are lost to malnutrition, and that the world’s greatest unexploited resource is not oil or gold but the minds of hungry children.” 

These words challenge me to read a bit in the medical literature.  Cesar Victora et al’s 2008 review is a good starting point. 


In their paper they analyzed datga from five longstanding prospective cohort studies taking place in Brazil, Guatemala, India, the Philippines, and South Africa.  Childhood undernutrition were directly related to adult outcomes such as adult height, schooling completed, IQ, income etc.   They note that height at 2 years of age was, “… the best predictor of human capital and that undernutrition is associated with lower human capital. ….. damage suffered in early life leads to permanent impairment, and might also affect future generations.”[i]

We used to talk about ostriches putting their heads in the sand.  Perhaps pelicans might be a better bird to allude to.  They, like us, never say anything.

Nicolas Kristoff: The World’s Malnourished Kids Don’t Need a $295 Burger

A quarter of the world’s children are stunted from inadequate diets. NY Times. June 12, 2019

[i] Lancet. 2008 Jan 26;371(9609):340-57. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(07)61692-4.

Maternal and child undernutrition: consequences for adult health and human capital.

Victora CG1, Adair L, Fall C, Hallal PC, Martorell R, Richter L, Sachdev HS; Maternal and Child Undernutrition Study Group.