FAST BACKWARD: Davao’s spot-billed pelican

Fast Backward : Antonio V. Figueroa

Davao Gulf was once home to the now extinct spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis), the only pelican species ever recorded in the islands. It used to thrive also in Lake Buluan and Liguasan March in central Mindanao but widespread hunting, opening of new farms, deforestation, introduction of invasive plants, and uncontrolled poaching eventually led to its extinction. Its last sighting was recorded in 1972.

The bird, identifiable by its unique, elongated mandible under the beak frame, was also found in Candaba Swamp (Pampanga), Laguna de Bay, and the coastal regions of Bulacan in the prewar years. It was first introduced taxonomically in ‘Le Pelican des Philippines’ (1760) and classified in 1789 by Johann Friedrich Gmelin (1748-1804), a German botanist (study of plants), herpetologist (study of reptiles and amphibians), malacologist (study of mollusks), and entomologist (study of insects) after whom the gmelina tree (Gmelina arborea) was named.

According to the Bulletin of the National Museum (No. 4, 1904), Dean Conant Worcester, American interior secretary in the Philippines, once obtained a specimen of the bird, which he shot in Tarlac on February 22, 1904; he also owned a live bird in his collection of fowls. Interestingly, the Jesuit Museum in Manila also kept several live specimens of the big bird.

On the other hand, James Lee Peters, assistant curator of birds in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College, identified in his Check-list of Birds of the World (Volume I, 1931) the Philippine pelican as roaming along the coasts of India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar), Malay Peninsula, southern China, Hainan, Java Luzon, and Mindanao.

Depicted by its white feathers, dark feet, and spotted bill and pouch, the Philippine pelican, also known as the grey pelican, belongs to a clade (a group of organisms believed to have evolved from a common ancestor) that includes the Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus philippensis crispus Bruch, 1832), pink-backed pelican (Pelecanus rufescens) and the Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus).

“The spot-billed pelican,” Wikipedia describes, “is a relatively small pelican but still a large bird. It is 125–152 cm (49–60 in) long and a weight of 4.1–6 kg (9.0–13.2 lb). It is mainly white, with a grey crest, hindneck and a brownish tail. The feathers on the hind neck are curly and form a greyish nape crest. The pouch is pink to purplish and has large pale spots and is also spotted on the sides of the upper mandible. The tip of the bill (or nail) is yellow to orange.”

The Philippine pelican, moreover, “lives in lowland freshwater, brackish, and marine wetland areas of Southeast Asia, mainly near open water. [They] hunt for food in both freshwater and marine environments… During the breeding season these pelicans require large trees for nesting with a preference for bare or dead trees”

English naturalist Eugene W. Oates (1845-1911) also kept a large number of the Philippine pelican specimens and made an excellent study of the changes in its plumage. The result of his observations appeared in ‘Birds of British Burmah’ (1883), which he published. He noticed:

“The young bird, when fully fledged, retains its first feathers for at least one year, the only change being that the brown colors become darker and the rufous edgings abraded and consequently less marked. The impressed spots on the bill are not indicated till the sixth month, and even at the end of twelve months these spots are quite indistinct, compared with those of the adult bird. Toward the end of the first year a livid spot appears in front of the eyes and soon becomes clearly defined…

“After the first molt, at about twelve months of age, the whole head and neck are covered with short, soft, downy feathers, the bases of which are black, the tips white; and the crest and mane are developed to the same extent as in the adult; the shoulders and scapulars are wood-brown; the lesser and median coverts to the secondaries wood-brown; the feathers all edged with paler; the greater coverts darker brown, edged with light brown; the coverts to the tertiaries grayish brown, edged with pale fulvous…

“[W]hen the bird is about thirty months old, the molt into adult breeding plumage is commenced and the change is entirely effected by October, except that in this first breeding season the wing-coverts never become entirely white as in the old birds, the feathers of these parts being a mixture of long sharp-pointed, white feathers, and comparatively blunt brown ones.”

In recent decades, pelican sightings in the country were reported. On September 8, 2016, for instance, the Wild Bird Club of the Philippine members in Davao received news of a giant bird seen in Sarangani Bay. The bird’s first photo was taken but it was not the spot-billed pelican’s; it was the Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus), one of eight species of pelicans that still survive in the world today.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) reported a sighting of a pelican on January 14, 2009 at Lake Bito, in the village of Imelda, MacArthur, Leyte, which bird watchers attempted to record on photo. Tim Fisher, co-author of ‘A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines’ (2000) suggested the water bird that was spotted could have been a Dalmatian pelican.