If you’ve never watched pelicans flying, you’ve missed a magnificent sight!
American White Pelicans are one of the largest water birds in North America, standing five feet high with a nine-foot wingspan. Up close, they may seem strange-looking and awkward; but when flocks soar high in the sky, circling together in graceful unison, they produce a spectacular, choreographed dance. The sun touches them differently as they glide together in slow circles; one moment you see them as specks of white, then you see the black edges of their wings, and then suddenly they seem to disappear.
Here’s a simple one-minute phone video of the American White Pelicans in flight:
To you, they may be just a bunch of birds in the sky. To me, each sighting is a very personal visitation—a precious glimpse of one of God’s most interesting creations.
My First Sighting
The very first time I saw them, Russ and I were horseback riding. As we came out of a wooded area into a clearing, I saw these birds in the sky in the distance, different from any birds I’d seen before. I called a dear friend, an experienced birder, and she told me they were pelicans. White Pelicans. They migrate through this Midwest area every spring and fall, following the Mississippi flyway.
I began to watch for them in March and October. I might be walking to the car or just driving along and happen to look up…and there they were. Each time was an exciting surprise, and I thanked God for this delightful gift. Whenever I saw them, I would call my birder-friend Pam, and we would share the joy of seeing them. After she died, I always thought of her when I saw the pelicans. Special memories of our talks still lingered to encourage and inspire me. Perhaps the connection I felt between Pam and the pelicans made them more special.
Once in 2013, a flock of pelicans visited the lake behind our mobile home.
A Pandemic Blessing
It had been a long time since my last sighting, and I had almost forgotten the pelicans. Due to the pandemic, my husband and I stayed home more, often sitting in the back yard enjoying the peaceful lake behind our home. One day I saw something beyond the trees lining our lake—specks of white that turned to black—and I knew immediately what I had seen, even in the distance. Several days later, I saw a large number of birds in a V-shaped grouping, moving toward us. It was a large flock of White Pelicans, swirling and circling in four separate groups that stayed close together, all moving eastward. I watched as they flew overhead, marveling at their graceful, unhurried circling on unmoving wings. I watched until they were all out of sight.
Pelicans always travel and migrate in groups. It was fall migration season, and we have many lakes, rivers and marshes in this area where they can stop to rest and feed. They were probably on their way to the Pacific coasts of the United States and Central America, anywhere from California to Nicaragua. Some spend the winter near the Gulf coast of Mexico or Florida, sometimes as far south as Costa Rica, or the Caribbean Islands. Some pelicans stay in Mexico year-round, or on the Texas coast or in Florida, but most migrate to those areas from breeding grounds.
Pelicans breed mostly inland, nesting on isolated islands within lakes and feeding on shallow lakes, rivers, or marshes. Four different species of White Pelicans nest on the ground; there are also four species of brown or gray-feathered species that tend to nest in trees.
All eight pelican species have a patchy global distribution, ranging latitudinally from the tropics to the temperate zone but absent from interior South America, polar regions and the open ocean. Some breed locally on coastal islands. During breeding season, pelicans often feed at night, and feeding areas can be miles from nesting sites. The bills, pouches, and bare facial skin of all species become brightly colored before the breeding season. Only one species has a bill “horn” like the one in the next photo. It is shed after breeding and eggs have been laid.
Pelicans Sometimes Herd Fish
A pelican’s diet is mostly fish, sometimes crayfish and salamanders. They swim on the surface, dipping their bills into the water to scoop up fish in their large throat pouch. They do not use the pouch for storing food; they drain water from the scooped-up contents before eating. Sometimes they forage cooperatively, swimming together to drive fish toward shallower water. One pelican can eat four pounds of fish a day. This YouTube video, narrated by Jo Alwood in the St. Louis area, tells all about this feeding habit of the American White Pelican:
Unfortunately, pelicans have been persecuted because of their perceived competition with commercial and recreational fishing. Populations have decreased from habitat destruction, disturbances and environmental pollution. As I researched this bird, I found one source that said pelicans live 12 to 14 years in the wild; another source gave 16 years.
The Smaller Brown Pelicans
We do not see the Brown Pelicans in the Midwest, but I found this video on Brown Pelican diving habits, narrated by Jo Alwood, that was really fun to watch! White Pelicans do not dive for fish as the Brown Pelicans do:
Another post you might enjoy: Double Crested Cormorants