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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

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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Keys to identification Help

Ducklike
Ducklike
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    A huge waterbird with very broad wings, a long neck, and a massive bill that gives the head a unique, long shape. They have thick bodies, short legs, and short, square tails. During the breeding season, adults grow an unusual projection or horn on the upper mandible near the tip of the bill.

  • Color Pattern

    Adult American White Pelicans are snowy white with black flight feathers visible only when the wings are spread. A small patch of ornamental feathers on the chest can become yellow in spring. The bill and legs are yellow-orange. Immatures are mostly white as well, but the head, neck, and back are variably dusky.

  • Behavior

    American White Pelicans feed from the water’s surface, dipping their beaks into the water to catch fish and other aquatic organisms. They often upend, like a very large dabbling duck, in this process. They do not plunge-dive the way Brown Pelicans do. They are superb soarers (they are among the heaviest flying birds in the world) and often travel long distances in large flocks by soaring. When flapping, their wingbeats are slow and methodical.

  • Habitat

    American White Pelicans typically breed on islands in shallow wetlands in the interior of the continent. They spend winters mainly on coastal waters, bays, and estuaries, or a little distance inland.

Range Map Help

American White Pelican Range Map
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Field MarksHelp

Similar Species

Brown Pelicans are considerably smaller than American White Pelicans, and their plumage is all dark, without the American White Pelican’s contrast between gleaming white and jet black. Because American White Pelicans are so distinctively shaped, most identification problems occur when they are in the air and far away. Wood Storks fly with their necks extended, and their long legs trailing behind them. The black trailing edge of the wing comes all the way to the body in Wood Storks, whereas American White Pelicans have a white gap on the wing (the tertials) before the black trailing edge begins. Additionally, Wood Stork flocks are quite messy, with individuals or small groups often wandering away and then returning, and with little or no synchrony when turning in thermals. Whooping Cranes are very rare and limited in range. Their long necks, small heads, and long legs are usually visible in flight; they also tent to fly with a quick upstroke and slower downstroke rather than the pelican’s methodical flapping. In Whooping Cranes the black in the wings is confined to mostly the wingtips rather than most of the way along the trailing edge, as in American White Pelicans. The black on the wings of adult White Ibis is restricted to the outer primaries and their wingbeats are quick and snappy. Snow Geese fly with their necks extended and they flap their wings nearly continuously instead of soaring.

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.