by Whit Gibbons

January 21, 2018

Animal behavior can be intriguing. And you don’t have to be a scientist to enjoy observing animals and speculating about their behavior, as the following inquiry proves.

Q: My wife and I recently watched a pelican and a dolphin engage in what may have been play or may have been competition for food. The pelican would occasionally land where the dolphin was surfacing, making a great splash in the water as it landed. The dolphin would then swim away, surfacing every 10 yards or so. Then they would repeat the performance. We watched for several minutes as the pelican continued to follow the dolphin. They worked their way from one side of the lagoon to the other until they were out of sight. Incidentally, two strangers on the bridge with us also watched the dolphin-pelican show and the four of us enjoyed speculating about the unusual (to us) display. Have you ever heard of this behavior?

A: Many animals engage in play, especially young mammals, including primates and members of the dog and cat families. Dolphins are also known for playful antics, but a grown pelican does not strike me as one to participate in such behavior. My guess was that it had something to do with the pelican getting a meal prepared by someone else. To confirm this assumption, I checked with Meg Hoyle of Botany Bay Ecotours, who spends most of her time around coastal creatures and was likely to be familiar with such behavior.

Sure enough, Meg has seen both pelicans and laughing gulls following dolphins for a free meal. She says, “The gulls will even try to land on a dolphin's head.”

Makes sense. If you’re trying to take food from another animal, why not try to get as close to its mouth as you can? According to Meg, “The dolphins are probably chasing fish up to the surface or using bubble net fishing, corralling the fish and then chasing them up. The birds are taking advantage of the dolphins’ work.”

Bubble net feeding is a strategy used underwater by some whales and dolphins in which a stream of bubbles is forced out of their blowhole as they encircle a school of fish. Trapped or confused, the fish are no match for the fast-moving mammals and become easy prey. In some areas, dolphins will use their tails to stir up a curtain of mud to corral the fish. And in some coastal regions dolphins use another remarkable fish-catching behavior called strand feeding. A team of dolphins will force a school of fish toward a sandy beach or mudflat until some jump from the water and are stranded ashore. The dolphins will then glide out of the water and eat the fish that are flopping around. But the dolphins are not the only beneficiaries of this tactic. “When dolphins strand feed, egrets, pelicans, herons and gulls will wait on the bank and grab any fish they can.”

Meg has made a fascinating observation about the birds during this prey-gathering behavior by one of the wiliest predators of the sea. The birds stand on shore and walk or waddle to the exact spot where the dolphins will emerge from the water. She speculates that the birds may hear the underwater whistles the dolphins make right before charging the bank. She notes that the birds can be an early indicator of where dolphins will emerge from the water for someone wanting to watch or film strand feeding.

New and unusual animal behaviors are observed and reported every day by people who are not trained scientists but simply nature enthusiasts. You may not be able to see pelicans and dolphins where you live, but I guarantee you that some interesting interactions are going on around you all year long. Even ordinary backyard birds, squirrels and insects have something to offer a careful observer. All of them engage in some kind of interesting or puzzling behavior.

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