• Skip to Content
  • Skip to Main Navigation
  • Skip to Local Navigation
  • Skip to Search
  • Skip to Sitemap
  • Skip to Footer
Help develop a Bird ID tool!

American White Pelican

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos ORDER: PELECANIFORMES FAMILY: PELECANIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Breeding on lakes throughout the northern Great Plains and mountain West, the American White Pelican is one of the largest birds in North America. It winters along the coasts, but breeds only inland.

Learn more about BirdSleuth
Be a Better Birder Tutorial 4

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
50–65 in
127–165 cm
Wingspan
96.1–114.2 in
244–290 cm
Weight
158.7–317.5 oz
4500–9000 g
Other Names
  • Pelican (blanc) d¿Amerique (French)
  • Pelicano Norteamericano (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The White Pelican does not dive for fish as the Brown Pelican does. Instead, it dips its head underwater to scoop up fish. Several pelicans may fish cooperatively, moving into a circle to concentrate fish, and then dipping their heads under simultaneously to catch fish.

Habitat


Lake/Pond

Breeds mainly on isolated islands in freshwater lakes, forages on inland marshes, lakes, or rivers, favoring shallows. Islands used for breeding are often 30 or more miles from foraging areas. During the nonbreeding season, American White Pelicans favor shallow coastal bays, inlets, and estuaries.

Food


Fish

The American White Pelican forages mainly on fish in shallow wetlands; crayfish, tadpoles and salamanders are also eaten. Researchers have found regurgitated fish hooks and lures in colonies, suggesting that pelicans also take game fish that have been injured or slowed by anglers.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Egg Description
uniform white
Nest Description

The nest is a shallow depression with a low rim that the bird forms while it is sitting, by raking up gravel, soil, or nearby vegetation with its bill. The nest bottom consists of the same material, and vegetative insulation or lining within the nest is rare.

Nest Placement

Ground

Nests in colonies on islands that aren’t subject to regular flooding. The eggs are typically laid on bare gravel, sand, or soil with little vegetation in the immediate area. In forested regions, the American White Pelican sometimes will nest under either deciduous or coniferous trees.

Behavior


Surface Dive

The American White Pelican is a graceful flier, either singly, in flight formations, or soaring on thermals in flocks. They soar in different portions of thermals for different distances: wandering flights in lower portions of a thermal, commuting flights at middle heights, and cross-country flights in the upper reaches of thermal columns. They are skilled swimmers, but they do not plunge-dive for prey like their coastal relatives the Brown Pelican. Instead they make shallow dives from the surface of the water or just plunge their heads underwater. They often hunt for food in groups in shallow water.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

American White Pelican numbers have been increasing steadily at a rate of about 3.9 percent per year from 1980 to 2003. On their nesting grounds, pelicans are very sensitive to human disturbance—people, boats, and low-flying planes can cause the birds to leave their nests, exposing eggs and young to excessive heat and predatory gulls. They are also shot, either illegally for trophies or in an attempt to protect fish stocks (although American White Pelicans typically do not eat commercially valuable fish). In the 1960s, when the pesticide DDT was widely used, pelicans produced thinner eggshells. Because pelicans tend to nest on islands where they are safe from mammalian predators, altered lake levels (flooding or drainage) can render their breeding habitat unsafe. According to NatureServe, populations are of particular concern in California, Idaho, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and British Columbia, Canada.

Credits

  • Evans, R. M. and F. L. Knopf. 1993. American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). In The Birds of North America, No. 57 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists¿ Union.

Range Map Help

American White Pelican Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings