American White Pelican

By Beth Deimling

You may not think the American White Pelican  is an Indiana bird, but while it has not been found nesting here, it is possible to see them here, especially in spring, but also, infrequently, in the fall. Most published distribution maps exclude Indiana even from their migration routes, but a check of eBird sighting maps gives one the impression that these are birds that are likely to wander. Numbers of birds sighted in Indiana in the spring (March & April) have been steadily climbing, especially since 2005. In April 2014, 1,000 white pelicans were seen at Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area, which seems to have become a significant stopover area on the eastern fringes of the White Pelican migratory route. They have been seen in migration from the longshore tower at Indiana Dunes State Park, at Willow Slough Fish & Wildlife Area, at Potato Creek State Park, and even as close as Lake Manitou, at Rochester.

One of the largest of North American birds, standing 4 feet tall and with a 9-foot wingspan, they are much larger than brown pelicans. They are, in fact, among the heaviest flying birds in the world at 16 pounds, but are world-class soaring birds and spectacular fliers, with flocks often soaring very high in the air, advancing in formation, or wheeling and circling in unison. Adults are white, with black flight feathers that can only be seen when they are in flight. Bills and legs are yellow-orange, paler on immatures and non-breeding adults. Immature birds are mostly white, but head, neck and back are dusky. While brown pelicans spectacularly plunge-dive to catch fish, white pelicans scoop fish only from the water’s surface, often upending like a dabbling duck. American White Pelicans feed in shallow lakes, rivers, and marshes. Often hunting for food in groups using synchronized bill dipping, they will form a line and start swimming towards shore while flapping their wings and herding their prey towards the shore. Adults eat up to three pounds of fish per day, primarily rough fish of little value to humans. They also eat salamanders and crayfish.

Breeding mostly in south-central Canada (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta), as well as Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Montana, and a few disjunct more westerly breeding areas, American White Pelicans typically breed on isolated islands in freshwater lakes, or on ephemeral islands in shallow wetlands. They breed in colonies, and there are fewer than 60 of these colonies in total, making them vulnerable to predation and habitat loss. They are easily disturbed during nesting, often abandoning nests if disturbed. The female lays 1-3 white eggs in a depression on the ground or on a mound of vegetation and dirt, made only with materials from the immediate vicinity of the nest. Both parents incubate the eggs, but as incubation patches are absent, both sexes incubate by holding eggs under large foot webs. Eggs hatch in about a month. If the female lays more than one egg, usually only the strongest chick will survive. Chicks are born naked, but within a week they are covered with white down. Chicks leave the nest and join a pod of young pelicans when they are 17-28 days old. Chicks fledge when they are about 10 weeks old. Adults are usually silent, except for frequent low, brief grunts at the colony site. Young are more vocal; loud begging calls by hundreds of older young at a colony can produce a large volume of sound.

White pelicans spend winters mainly on coastal waters along the Gulf of Mexico, from Florida to Mexico, and also along the Pacific Coast. During winter, they can be found in shallow, protected bays and estuaries, as well as a little distance inland, and also on large lakes in warm climates. Most populations are migratory. Some populations on the Texas coast and in Mexico are permanent residents, and some nonbreeding birds remain through summer on their winter range, especially in Florida. They migrate by day, generally in large flocks, stopping on lakes, and rivers to rest and feed. Populations breeding east of the Rocky Mountains migrate primarily southward and eastward towards the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Populations breeding west of the Rocky Mountains move primarily southward to California and the west coast of Mexico, rarely eastward. Of course, these generalizations have their rare exceptions, with some groups actually crossing the continental divide to winter mostly along the Pacific rather than Atlantic coastline.

Other than their great size, tremendous soaring ability, and a bill that becomes a huge scoop while fishing, white pelicans have another unusual feature. When breeding, adults — both male and female — grow an odd laterally flattened plate or bump on the top of the bill. This hard bump falls off after breeding.

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