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PITTSBURGH – The National Aviary in Pittsburgh offers a unique look into a variety of habitats including a free-flight wetland. Here you can truly appreciate the wide diversity of birds ranging from the Ruddy Duck of North America to the Hadada Ibis from Africa. You can get up close and personal with the exotic Roseate Spoonbill and the common Brown Pelican. The diversity in the appearance and the geographic range of the birds was shocking. This is what made me want to investigate the obvious differences and the subtle similarities I observed in the Ruddy Duck and the Brown Pelican.

Upon first glance you can easily note some differences. Some that I observed are:

  • Size
  • Shape
  • Bill Structure
  • Color Pattern
  • Behavior

The most obvious difference between the Pelican and the Ruddy Duck are their size. Brown Pelicans are some of the largest birds on North America. In comparison to the Ruddy Duck they are huge. The Ruddy Duck contrasts in the sense that they are small and compact with a short, thick neck and a flat bill like you could expect on your average duck.

Another noticeable difference between these two birds are their color patterns. There is no question as to where the Brown Pelican got its name. A light brown covers the majority of their body. To further your identification of the Brown Pelican some other distinguishing factors are:

  • Long white neck
  • Yellow head
  • Black wing feathers
  • Orange bill that is just as long as its body

One interesting adaptation Pelicans have in their bill structure is that they have a pouch on their neck that stretches. Cornell Lab of Ornithology notes that this pouch expands to increase the Pelican’s chances of catching fish.

The coloration of the Ruddy Duck is not much more elaborate. The majority of their body is what the Cornell Lab of Ornithology describe as a rich chestnut. Other color patterns gave this duck a light and playful personality.

  • Black on top of the head to the eyes
  • White cheeks
  • Baby-blue bill

The further my observations got the more I noticed how different these birds behave. The Ruddy Duck seemed quite busy. They were almost always swimming in pairs or diving under the water. The Pelicans on the other hand seemed rather lethargic. I observed them sleeping, tucked away in the tree tops of the exhibit. For anyone who has been to the ocean, and has seen pelicans, can attest that this is not very uncharacteristic for these birds. Once I began to research these two birds I realized that there were some other notable differences.

After further investigation, I was able to discover some more notable differences like geographic distribution and diet. Although the Brown Pelican and the Ruddy Duck are from the same general habitat their geographic distribution varies drastically. The Pelicans are restricted to the coastal areas of North America. The Ruddy Duck on the other hand extends much farther than that. They can be found as year-round residents or migrating through almost every state. The diet of these two species also varies drastically. Fish comprise the vast majority of a Pelican’s diet. According to the Audubon Society Guide to North American Birds a Ruddy Duck eats mostly seeds, roots, insects and the occasion small fish.

It is not all too surprising that these two birds vary so drastically because they are different species. As varied as the Brown Pelican and the Ruddy Duck are they share some subtle differences like:

  • Wetland habitat
  • Southern during winter months
  • Diving under the water to secure food.
  • Mating in pairs

Much more information on these birds can be found on the Audubon Society Guide to North American Birds and Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Here you can easily compare and contrast these two birds and check out the facts.

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