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American White Pelican

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos ORDER: PELECANIFORMES FAMILY: PELECANIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

One of the largest North American birds, the American White Pelican is majestic in the air. The birds soar with incredible steadiness on broad, white-and-black wings. Their large heads and huge, heavy bills give them a prehistoric look. On the water they dip their pouched bills to scoop up fish, or tip-up like an oversized dabbling duck. Sometimes, groups of pelicans work together to herd fish into the shallows for easy feeding. Look for them on inland lakes in summer and near coastlines in winter.

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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
Relative Size
One of our largest flying birds: considerably larger than a Bald Eagle; smaller than a California Condor.
Other Names
  • Pelican (blanc) d¿Amerique (French)
  • Pelicano Norteamericano (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • In A Sand County Almanac, pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold described a migrating group of American White Pelicans this way: “Let a squadron of southbound pelicans but feel a lift of prairie breeze… and they sense at once that here is a landing in the geological past, a refuge from that most relentless of aggressors, the future. With queer antediluvian grunts they set wing, descending in majestic spirals to the welcoming wastes of a bygone age.”
  • American White Pelicans cooperate when feeding. Sometimes, large groups gather in wetlands. They coordinate their swimming to drive schooling fish toward the shallows. The pelicans can then easily scoop up these corralled fish from the water.
  • American White Pelicans must provide roughly 150 pounds of food to nourish a chick from its birth to the time it's ready to forage on its own.
  • Contrary to cartoon portrayals and common misconceptions, pelicans never carry food in their bill pouches. They use them to scoop up food but swallow their catch before flying off.
  • Pelicans are skillful food thieves. They steal from other pelicans trying to swallow large fish and are successful about one-third of the time. They also try to steal prey from Double-crested Cormorants that are bringing fish to the surface. In their dense nesting colonies, some birds even steal the food that a parent on an adjacent nest has disgorged for its young.
  • Pelican chicks can crawl by 1 to 2 weeks of age. By 3 weeks they can walk with their body off the ground and can swim as soon as they can get to water. Older chicks move up to running, then running with flapping their wings, and by the age of 9 to 10 weeks, they can fly.
  • They forage almost exclusively by day on their wintering grounds, but during breeding season, they commonly forage at night. Even though it’s hard to see, nighttime foraging tends to result in larger fish being caught than during the daytime.
  • American White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants are often found together. They sometimes forage together (though they mainly hunt different fish and at different depths). Cormorants even nest individually or in groups within pelican colonies.
  • Pelicans are big birds that can overheat when they’re out in the hot sun. They shed heat by facing away from the sun and fluttering their bill pouches—which contain many blood vessels to let body heat escape. Incubating parents may also stretch their wings wide to aid cooling.
  • American White Pelican embryos squawk before hatching to express discomfort if conditions get too hot or cold.
  • The oldest known American White Pelican at least 23 years, 6 months old and was banded in North Dakota in 1983.

Habitat


Lake/Pond

American White Pelicans breed mainly on isolated islands in freshwater lakes or, in the northern Great Plains, on ephemeral islands in shallow wetlands. They forage in shallow water on inland marshes, along lake or river edges, and in wetlands, commonly 30 miles or more from their nesting islands. Where late summer temperatures bring sunning fish near the surface, these pelicans can forage on deeper lakes. During migrations, they stop in similar habitats to forage and rest. Catfish aquaculture farms in the Mississippi Delta have become increasingly popular spring migration stops for more easterly migrating flocks. In the winter, they favor coastal bays, inlets, estuaries, and sloughs where they can forage in shallow water and rest on exposed spots like sandbars. They rarely winter inland, though the Salton Sea in Southern California is a regular exception. Other inland sites may include large rivers where moving water prevents surface ice, including stretches below dams.

Food


Fish

American White Pelicans eat mostly small fish that occur in shallow wetlands, such as minnows, carp, and suckers. Schooling fish smaller than one half their bill length predominate, though they will take sluggish bottom feeders, salamanders, tadpoles, and crayfish. They may also take deeper water fish like tui chub that spawn in the shallows. Because they are opportunistic, their diet changes with water levels and prey species abundance. In some areas of the Great Plains, salamanders and crayfish can predominate in the pelicans' diet. These birds can take game fish like cutthroat trout during spawning runs when locally available. Their prey is usually of little commercial value, although catfish aquaculture ponds in the Mississippi Delta have become an increasingly favored food source in recent years, especially during spring migrations.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
3.3–3.7 in
8.3–9.5 cm
Egg Width
2–2.2 in
5.2–5.5 cm
Incubation Period
30 days
Nestling Period
63–70 days
Egg Description
Uniform chalky white, rough to the touch, becoming smooth and discolored over time.
Condition at Hatching
Naked and helpless, with an orange body and grayish white pouch and bill, unable to walk.
Nest Description

Both sexes use their bills to rake up surrounding gravel, sand, or soil to create a shallow depression roughly 2 feet across with a rim usually no more than 8 inches high. Occasionally they dig into the bottom of the site as well and may include nearby vegetation, though neither of the pair leaves the site to gather material. Because of trampling, by the end of the nesting season, the broad cup is usually 2 inches deep at most.

Nest Placement

Ground

The pair chooses a relatively flat nest site on gravel, sand, or soil near other pelicans at the same stage of the breeding cycle. In southern, drier regions, they nest amongst sparse vegetation. In forested regions, sites may be under shrubs or trees.

Behavior


Surface Dive

These large, gregarious birds often travel and forage in large flocks, sometimes traveling long distances in V-formations. They soar gracefully on very broad, stable wings, high into the sky in and between thermals. On the ground they are ungainly, with an awkward, rolling, but surprisingly quick walk. Their webbed feet make for water-ski landings and strong swimming. They forage by swimming on the surface, dipping their bills to scoop up fish, then raising their bills to drain water and swallow their prey. They also forage cooperatively: groups of birds dip their bills and flap their wings to drive fish toward shore, corraling prey for highly efficient, synchronized, bill-dipping feasts. Pairs court in circling flights and in strutting, bowing, and jabbing displays at a chosen nest sites. Though females lay two eggs, only one chick per nest usually survives—one harasses or kills the other (a behavior known as siblicide). At 2 to 3 weeks old, chicks leave their nests and form into groups called crèches. Parents continue to forage for them, returning to the creche and searching out their young to feed them. Pelicans respond to threats by flying aggressively into a near-stall or, on land, adopting an upright posture and grunting. More severe threats from aerial predators provoke open-billed displays where the pelican lunges forward, jabbing with its enormous bill. Predators include foxes, coyotes, gulls, ravens, Great Horned Owls, and Bald Eagles.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Populations of American White Pelicans have rebounded from lows in the mid-twentieth century and have grown at roughly 5 percent per year since 1966, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Waterbird Conservation for the Americas estimates a global breeding population in excess of 120,000. The species rates an 11 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and is assigned a status of Moderate Concern. These shy pelicans are highly sensitive to human disturbances at their breeding colonies and readily abandon nests. They used to be shot either for sport or from the idea that they competed with humans for fish—though they are now understood to take fish of little commercial value. However, as their numbers have grown, their spring migration stopovers at catfish aquaculture ponds in the Mississippi Delta have increased, and shootings there have increased. Historically, human disturbance and destruction of foraging and breeding habitat have been major threats. Water management on the breeding grounds has effects on pelicans, too, since they depend on shallow wetlands. Either permanent flooding or permanent draining of wetlands renders those habitats inhospitable.

Credits

Range Map Help

American White Pelican Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Resident to medium-distance migrant. Northern breeding populations migrate to southern California, the Gulf States, Mexico, and Central America. Populations breeding in Texas and Mexico are resident.

Find This Bird

Though American White Pelicans breed at fewer than 60 colonies in total, their large size and propensity to travel large distances, even when breeding, make finding them fairly straightforward. Finding them depends on where you are and what time of the year it is, so check a range map to find out whether you should be looking in inland sites in the north or coastal spots in the south of the continent. When you’re on the lookout for pelicans, don’t just look at the water surface; scan the skies and you may find large flocks of these immense birds soaring inconspicuously very high up. Though they are typically found along coasts in winter, you can also find large numbers in California’s Central Valley, the Salton Sea, and the Colorado River drainage of California and Arizona. Migrants are often noted in spring or fall passing various western hawkwatches, particularly the Smith Point and Hazel Bazemore hawkwatches in Texas.