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PITTSBURGH – You’re a seasoned adventurer exploring the coast of a warm, breezy wetland area. As you tread through the dense forest brush and tall grass you see a pelican and a heron resting next to each other. That would be strange, right? Not really.

The trip to the National Aviary in Pittsburgh marked the third or fourth Tweetspeak class field trip for the semester and I was tasked with comparing two species of a similar habitat. Looking through the exhibits and observing the different types of birds I stumbled upon the Brown Pelican and the Boat-billed Heron, the two coolest birds I could find. The unique structures of their beaks captured my interest and helped make my decision. 

These two species, although very different, share more than just a common habitat. It might sound funny but their differences are actually what makes them similar.

At first glance, these two birds made seem like they have nothing in common. The Brown Pelican is fairly larger than the Boat-billed Heron. The heron has longer legs while the pelican has webbed feet unlike the heron. Behavioral wise, the heron seemed much more active and agile while the pelican rested in one spot for the majority of my observation. To top it all off, both birds have distinct looking beaks that in no way seems similar to the others’

So, the question is, why are were these birds grouped together in the same habitat? It may sound weird considering the differences between the two. With that being said It turns that they actually have much more in common than the same habitat. It might sound funny but their differences are actually what makes them similar.

Let’s look feet for example. From observing the Brown Pelican, I noticed it has extremely short legs, along with webbed feet. It’s hallux or first toe, points forward unlike most birds, including the herons. This variation would most likely inhibit it from perching in trees, a characteristic the heron has. The Boat-billed Heron, in contrast, was that it has much longer legs. These seem like differences, right? However, both of these differences serve as adaptations that enhance both of the birds’ ability to maneuver in water.

Imagine how easy it must be for a pelican to swim with webbed feet. This is major advantage especially when its primary food source is fish. But did you know the Boat-billed Heron’s primary source of food is also fish. And although it does not have webbed feet, it’s relatively long legs better enable it for wading, or walking through shallow waters. This also gives it an advantage when searching for food.

But it’s not just the difference in feet that connects both birds let’s look at the beaks. The Brown Pelican’s long, golden sword-like beak can, in no way, looks like it can relate to the Boat-billed Heron’s wide, flat clamp-like beak. But if we look deeper you can see each bird’s is also adapted for hunting and catching fish.




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