The American White Pelican is a majestic waterbird distinguished by its massive orange bill, long neck, and flurry of snowy white feathers. These birds are the only known pelican species (among 8 known ones) to develop horned bills during their breeding season. Unlike the brown pelican, this species is considerably larger and glides gracefully over the shallow freshwater lakes and marshes of Canada and the United States.
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Table of Contents
Table of Contents
They are highly gregarious and migratory, nesting in large breeding colonies during summer and wintering along the Pacific coastline in bays, estuaries, and inlets. The species has no known sub-species (monotypic.)
Length: Body – 130 to 180 cm (51 to 70 inches); Wingspan – 240 to 300 cm (94 to 118 inches)
Weight: 4.5 to 9 kg (10 to 19 lbs)
Body and Coloration:
One of the longest birds in North America, they have a plump, snowy-white body complemented by a long neck with distinct black feathers along their wings that are visible only when the bird is in flight. Their iconic long beak, flat on top, features a substantial gular pouch underneath, which changes color from yellow to a vibrant orange when approaching the breeding season – a transformation mirrored in their iris and feet.
During the breeding season, both the males and females develop light yellowish crests on the back of their heads and laterally flattened horns (nuptial tubercles) on the top of their bills that are shed by the end of the season. When not breeding, the bare parts become duller, with the naked facial skin turning yellow and the bill, pouch, and feet an orangy-flesh color. The breast feathers retain a yellowish hue from early spring until after breeding ends in mid-late summer.
In terms of size, male pelicans are larger than their female counterparts. Younger pelicans sport a light-gray coat with a touch of brown on their flight feathers. As they molt into eclipse plumage, their appearance evolves; the top of their heads darkens to a dusky gray, interspersed with small black feathers emerging amidst the white, adding to their distinguished look.
These pelicans are widespread across North America, making their homes in the cooler northern areas of Canada, including the islands along the Slave River and between Alberta and the Northwest Territories. Their nesting grounds stretch down to the United States, reaching from Ontario all the way to Northeastern California. About 10 to 20% of the American White Pelican population also nest on Gunnison Island in the Great Basin’s Great Salt Lake.
These birds migrate to warmer climates during winter (usually around September or October), congregating along the Pacific Ocean’s coastline and the Gulf of Mexico. They find their winter retreats in places like southern California, Florida, and Texas, and further south in Costa Rica and along the coastlines of Mexico.
During their breeding season, these pelicans choose secluded islands amid freshwater lakes, rivers, and marshes. These islands, which can be permanent fixtures or temporary landforms, are often situated a good distance away—more than 50 kilometers—from where they typically search for food.
As winter rolls in, they steer clear of the open sea shores and opt for the sheltered coasts of bays, inlets, estuaries, and sloughs. These areas are replete with sandbars and thus offer ideal shallow waters for foraging and provide perfect spots for them to bask in the sun. Occasionally, they are found wintering in inland areas, such as the Salton Sea in Southern California.
Each pelican needs roughly 4 pounds of food daily, including different types of fish (piscivores) such as minnows, tui chub, shiners, perch, trout, jackfish, catfish, common carp, and salmon.
However, they can feed on amphibians like larval salamanders and some crustaceans, including crayfish, when necessary.
These pelicans typically forage in shallow waters during the day by dipping their bills into the water’s surface while swimming. Once they have spotted their prey, it is scooped out into their gular pouch and swallowed after draining the excess water.
They often form groups of about a dozen, moving towards the shore in a queue, vehemently flapping their wings and driving their potential prey into the shallow waters around the coast for easier capture. However, in deeper waters, they usually prefer to hunt solo. They also exemplify kleptoparasitism, snatching food from other pelicans and water birds like cormorants, gulls, and herons.
Often regarded as expert’ soarers,’ they glide gracefully in the sky by spreading their broad wings and forming a V-shaped pattern in groups.
These birds stand their ground when threatened, holding their heads high and grunting to ward off attackers. They communicate aggression or alert their group to danger through various sounds. If an aerial predator attacks, they’ll charge forward, trying to jab at them using their long bills.
These pelicans release heat by facing away from the sun and fluttering their bill pouches, which are equipped with numerous blood vessels. Incubating parents may also stretch their wings to cool themselves.
In the wild, they live more than 16 years, with the oldest recorded individual being 26.4 years at the time of death. However, in captivity, the highest recorded lifespan is over 34 years.
Reproduction and Life Cycle
These birds arrive at the breeding sites between March and April and form about 5,000 monogamous pairs. These pair bonds are formed through elaborate courtship displays that usually include circular flight, parallel strutting, and swaying and bowing of heads.
Nesting usually begins around early April. Simple, low-rimmed nests are built by scraping depressions of 2 ft in the ground and filling them with twigs, sticks, reeds, and grass. Within a week, the female usually lays a clutch of two to three chalky-white eggs, of which generally one survives. Both parents then incubate these eggs with the warmth of their webbed feet for roughly a month.
When the eggs hatch, the chicks emerge naked (without feathers), quickly developing white down feathers before molting into immature plumage. These chicks learn to crawl in 1 to 2 weeks and can walk steadily at three weeks. By 9 to 10 weeks, the chicks learn to fly and are fledged at around 11 weeks.
They then join a ‘pod’ or a ‘crèche’ of equally young pelicans while their parents continue their care for a few more weeks. By late summer or early fall, they become independent and gather in large groups at their feeding areas. These pelicans reach sexual maturity in 3 to 4 years and are ready to mate.
Since these pelicans form colonies in isolated islands, threats from terrestrial predators are significantly reduced. However, red foxes and coyotes often prey upon adult colonies, and several species of gulls, like herring, ring-billed, California gulls, and common ravens, often hunt pelican eggs and nestlings. Some young pelicans are sometimes preyed upon by golden and bald eagles, great horned owls, and red-tailed hawks.
They have subcutaneous air sacs in their chests that help maintain buoyancy while swimming.
Their gular pouch is highly expandable and has the capacity to hold up to three gallons of water.
American white pelican populations were considerably reduced in the mid-20th century owing to the uncontrolled use of pesticides like DDT, endrin, and other organochlorines in agriculture, along with large-scale hunting for entertainment. However, their numbers revived with the execution of environmental protection laws, and by the 1980s, more than 100,000 American white pelicans were reportedly found in the wild, with 33,000 nests in the 50 colonies of Canada and 18,500 nests in the United States. These birds are currently protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 and have the protective status of California species of special concern (CSC).
Although these pelicans are currently abundant enough to be classified as ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN, they are susceptible to recurrent threats of poaching, human intervention, and habitat destruction. Also, the increasing instances of flooding due to inefficient water management continue to destroy the shallow wetlands that are the breeding grounds of these pelicans, further reducing their population.