“I feel like a first-rate idiot with a seagull on my head,” says John Ayliffe as he stands on the waterfront at Kingscote on Kangaroo Island surrounded by a shivering squadron of pelicans. Dressed in khaki waders, industrial rubber gloves, a well-worn hat, and yes, a live seagull atop his hat like a wind-vane ornament, he looks every bit the character he is. Every day at 5pm he feeds the Australian pelicans for the benefit of tourists who come to Kangaroo Island, off the South Australian coast. Some visitors have come to see fairy penguins, or little penguins to use their proper name. But despite the sign on a nearby building declaring it the Penguin Centre, there are no more penguins here, says John, “The fur seals have eaten them all.” But more on that later.
Despite the lack of penguins, most visitors stay to watch the pelican feeding, which turns out to be a show in its own right. John, who has been feeding the pelicans for 20 years, is a bit of a comedian, and his droll humour has us in stitches. He’d be right at home on the TV series Grumpy Old Men.
We learn that pelicans don’t mate for life, in fact, the females are “fairly sporting”, and the shivering wings are not because they are “pleased to see you”, but to keep themselves warm as they have very little oil on their feathers. John feeds the seagulls first, by throwing fish into the air so we can watch their precision flying – and so they don’t get swallowed by a pelican, which has been known to happen. While a pelican’s pouch is extremely sensitive, their beaks are very strong, hence the waders and gloves. “Only an idiot would wear a kilt,” quips John.
A pelican pouch can hold a considerable amount and other pelicans will rob their mates if they think they have more than their fair share. They can’t dive to catch food, so when John throws the last of his fish in the water there’s lots of frantic bum-in-the-air bobbing and scooping.
Apparently, feeding pelicans is illegal and John tells me after the show he has been arrested twice. But he’s determined to keep feeding them to keep the tourists coming to Kangaroo Island. As pelicans hang-glide on the thermals above us John explains he was a “peasant farmer” running 9500 head of sheep, until he had to shoot 2500 during the drought.
Now he is concerned about the fishing industry, as he claims the local population of New Zealand fur seals, which is growing about 10% a year, has not only decimated the island’s little penguin population, but is now depleting the squid and cuttlefish (and they’ve been known to eat the odd pelican). He also believes they are displacing the sea lions, which he thinks authorities should drench for rampant hook worms. (Yes, John has strong opinions on a number of issues, but is a passionate advocate of Kangaroo Island.)
Details: Pelican feeding takes place every day at 5pm on the northern side of Kingscote wharf. A donation is requested to cover the cost of fish: $5 for adults and $3 for kids. John lets you know during the show if you don’t make a donation he thinks you are “mean, miserable and shabby” and you make him irritable. Now I wouldn’t like to see that! But seriously, $5 is a bargain for this hilariously entertaining show.
I travelled to Kangaroo Island thanks to AAT Kings, on their South Australian Harvest Short Break, which focuses on regional produce, local characters and stunning landscapes. You can read more about the trip in this article in Escape.