National Geographic : 1943 Nov
Pelican Profiles BY LEWIS WAYNE WALKER With Illustrations from Photographsby the Author ON SIX tiny islands in the Salton Sea, groups of white pelicans hatch out their young-blind, naked, and help less-in a bake-oven world. Maximum temperatures, exceeding 1200 in nonexistent shade, are sufficient to broil the tender baby chicks. And broil they would, did not their parents, sponging up water in starch-white plumage, turn themselves into air conditioners. The shores of this 30-mile-long sea lap the inhospitable Colorado Desert, as this section of what used to be known as the "Great American Desert" is frequently called. This wilderness, sprinkled with greasewood and cactus, is the abode of road runners, rattle snakes, and lizards. Truly, they fit the desert scenery. The presence of birds commonly as sociated with cool, marshbound lakes brings up the question, "Hasn't Nature made a mis take?" On the contrary, their tenancy is the direct result of an error by man. In 1905, irrigation engineers, carving the verdant Imperial Valley out of the Colorado Desert, allowed the Colo rado River to burst its sluices. For two years the diverted stream poured a muddy torrent into an extinct lake bed called Salton Sink. By the time flood waters were controlled, the sink had become an inland sea. Two hundred and forty-four feet below ocean level, Salton Sea has no outlet. Waste waters from irrigation canals, balanced by evaporation, keep its area fairly constant. Its mullet and other fish support the white pelicans. In 1930, Congress set aside a refuge here for migrating ducks and geese. It now com prises 32,407 acres. No one invited the pelicans, but a small flock of winged squatters, discovering safety in the desert, settled down to stay some 35 years ago. A White Parade in the Blue I recall the day in the early thirties when a companion and I, sight-seeing among the bubbling mud geysers on the eastern side of the sea, observed a hundred white birds maneuvering majestically in the sky. They played follow-the-leader. Then they soared into the blue until only the sun, glinting on white feathers, flashed their location. Descending, they "snapped the whip" and performed other acrobatic feats. What birds were these? We wondered. As they alighted on the water, their identity became apparent. White pelicans, sublime in flight, seemed ridiculous on foot. Glossy-white wings, stretching eight to almost ten feet, were tipped with black. Weight: 15 to 17 pounds. Male and female looked alike. Since that day their numbers have in creased steadily. Last spring a friend and I were permitted to make a closer inspection. Plying a small boat, we visited the six isles which pelicans share with gull-billed terns (the rarest tern breeding in the United States). We had no more than landed on the first island than the terns, protecting their eggs, subjected us to a dive-bombing. Folding wings and sounding laughlike cries of warn ing, they plummeted like screaming Stukas. Just as they seemed about to strike, they pulled out of their plunges. In Terntown, Two Minus One Leaves None Unlike airmen, these flyers are poor mathe maticians. Taking advantage of their weak ness, we tricked them with a variety of shell game in which men instead of peas deceived the eye. Hastily erecting one of our prefabricated blinds, we both entered. The terns, realizing we were inside the uncamouflaged structure, persisted in scolding us with demoniac laugh ter. But when my companion allowed himself to be seen departing in the boat, the birds were convinced no human remained. Muting their cries, they resumed setting. Better the air raid than the shelter in which I now found sanctuary from the birds! Built seemingly for a midget, my combination tor ture chamber and Turkish bath shut out the breeze and imprisoned the heat. It was four feet high, three feet long, two feet broad. Pelican-high above the sandy floor, a small opening accommodated the camera. Above it a slot, covered with cheesecloth, permitted me to see without being seen. Within such blinds I spent eight sweltering week ends (page 592). We are accustomed to think of nesting birds warming their eggs. On Salton Sea islands, where the sun heats metal until it blisters the human arm, waterfowl reverse the incu bation process of northern climes. Pelicans, like white tents in the sand, crouched above their eggs to shade them.