It’s always unwise to chase migrating birds, as they’re on a tight budget and can’t afford to waste time or energy breaking formation to run from us. Far better from every perspective to simply follow along at a respectful distance, let them navigate, and enjoy the show. Also, pilots should know to never fly directly under birds of any species, because their first defensive instinct is to dive.  While these courtesies are easy enough to observe in most cases, sometimes it’s tempting to rationalize an exception…

I was giving a double ride here at Crystal one day, happy couple squoze in back, when we sighted a squadron of pelicans soaring along their migratory route. (Yes, squadron is the collective noun for pelicans.) These huge water birds soar across our section of the Mojave each year, heading NW in spring and SE in autumn, seldom flapping a wing as they mark lines of lift along the way.  Glistening white with black tips, they have a span of nearly 10 feet, and can weigh over 20 pounds. Of all the marvels I’ve witnessed in the sky, soaring near a hundred of these creatures may be the most entrancing.

Off to the side of this group we found one individual pelican flying alone, and wanted a better look. I tried to overtake it but was unable to stay up level, so as we drew close I cracked spoilers to allow plenty of room below. Twenty feet ought to be enough, I thought.

White feathers seemed to fill the sky ahead – and then we saw just how maneuverable even a giant bird can be. In half a second the pelican folded its wings, rolled inverted, and then spread them again as it dove toward us. It seemed for a moment we’d have pelican draped all over our nose and leading edges, but before I could respond in any way it had shot from above to below, so viscerally close we actually felt its tail brush our wheel!

Horrified that the bird may have been injured, I snapped a turn to see. Apparently it learned something from this episode too, as we next saw it flapping hard to form back up with its mates and regain the security of numbers. If I knew how to squawk pelican I’d have begged forgiveness, instead felt blessed just to fall away in shame.

Soaring with birds is a sacred privilege and we need to remember that it’s their sky, not ours. To them we’re an anomaly, intruders at best. We must be careful not to act as invaders.