Bird Lore: American White Pelican

American White Pelican (nonbreeding adult). Photo by Ollie Oliver

The American White Pelican, with its 9-foot wingspan and 30 pounds of weight, is one of the largest birds in North America. An authoritative reference on the birds of Washington, published in 2005, listed the American White Pelican as rare in Western Washington. The very few sightings in Edmonds were of single birds. That changed about two years ago when a population of about 200 pelicans found its way to Puget Sound.

The pelicans tried out locations from Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge to Padilla Bay, finally settling at Deer Lagoon, a quiet, shallow saltwater body on the west side of Whidbey Island. They continue to return in spring to summer at Deer Lagoon. This has resulted in increased sighting opportunities around Puget Sound, including Edmonds. When spending time on the waterfront this summer, look for the pelicans in flight rather than swimming on the water.

A four-minute You Tube video explains the recent Puget Sound population, attributing it to drought in the Intermountain West, particularly at Eastern Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge:

In contrast to the Brown Pelican, a coastal bird, the American White Pelican usually occurs far inland, feeds in groups on shallow lakes, and does not dive from the air for fish. Flocks soar very high, slowly wheeling and circling in unison. It winters along the coast in Southern California and the Gulf Coast states from Texas to Florida.

Diet of the American White Pelican is mostly fish that are of little commercial value, crayfish and salamanders. It forages by swimming on the surface, dipping its bill in the water, and scooping up fish in its pouch. The bill can hold up to three gallons of water. After a pelican scoops up fish, it points the bill downward to drain off the water. It then raises its bill and swallows its food. This pelican forages during the day, except during breeding season when it forages at night. It can forage cooperatively by lining up and driving schools of fish toward more shallow water.

There are several courtship displays that the American White Pelican engages in. Two birds will strut with their heads erect and their bills pointed down. They may engage in deep bowing with their wings raised slightly. Groups of these pelicans will also circle in courtship flights.

American White Pelicans. (Photo by Carol Riddell)

The American White Pelican nests in colonies on isolated islands in inland lakes. The pair will select a relatively flat nest site on soil, sand, or gravel near other pelicans at the same stage of the breeding cycle. Both sexes build the nest, using their bills to create a depression about two feet in diameter with a rim no more than eight inches high. There are two eggs that both sexes incubate for about 30 days. Both young will fledge if there is an abundant food supply, but it is more common that the second to hatch dies within two weeks. The parents must provide about 150 pounds of food for a chick from its birth to the time that it can forage on its own. In the absence of abundant food, a pair of adults just cannot feed two chicks.

A chick hatches naked and unable to walk. By three weeks a chick can walk with its body off the ground and it can swim as soon as it can get to water. An older chick can run, and then run with flapping its wings. By nine or 10 weeks it can fly. Shortly thereafter, it will leave the nesting colony.

American White Pelican (breeding adult). Photo by Carol Riddell

The oldest American White Pelican of record was 23 1/2 years old. It had been banded in North Dakota in 1983. A pelican can overheat when it is in hot sun. It will shed heat by turning away from the sun and fluttering its bill pouch. The pouch contains many blood vessels so the fluttering allows body heat to escape. Collective nouns for any group of pelicans include brief, pod, pouch, scoop, and squadron.

Conservation status of the American White Pelican is that of low concern. Its population has rebounded from its low point in the mid-twentieth century. It has grown about 5 percent per year between 1966 and 2014, resulting in a tenfold increase. The breeding population is estimated at more than 120,000. It is a shy bird that is highly sensitive to human disturbance at its breeding colonies and will readily abandon a nest. This species is vulnerable to permanent flooding or draining of wetlands as it depends on shallow wetlands and lakes. In spring migration the American White Pelican has started to stop over at catfish aquaculture ponds in the Mississippi Delta where shootings have increased.

Adults are usually silent. You can hear wing sounds here: They will, however, emit low, brief grunts in aggressive or sexual encounters at colony sites. Embryos will squawk before hatching if conditions become uncomfortably hot or cold. Older young birds make frequent begging calls. The repeated calls of a downy chick, with a lot of California Gulls in the background, can be heard here:

By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

5 Replies to “Bird Lore: American White Pelican”

  1. I should have mentioned that it is the adult male that grows the fibrous knob on its bill during breeding season. It is on the male’s bill from late winter until after the female lays her eggs. The female does not grow a similar knob.


  2. Carol, thank you for this very interesting information about Pelicans. I think they are a very intriguing bird. We have an even closer relationship to this great bird, it is a children’s book called ‘A Tall Tale about a Dachshund and a Pelican’.
    It is written by our wonderful local author Kizzie Jones with the delightful illustrations by Scott Ward.
    I see it is also out as a coloring book. Great fun to introduce this fantastic bird to children who will be as amazed as I was.
    Thank you for your coverage.
    Ingrid Wolsk


  3. Thank you so much for such an enjoyable, informative article! The links you included, the you tube video the two sound clips, were great additions to the facts you presented. A short Sunday morning read and I now know a lot about those amazing birds and will certainly be on the lookout when I’m on Whidbey next visit.


  4. I live in Fresno California. Yesterday I went to Eastman Lake about 40 miles north of here. It’s on the Chowchilla River in the Sierra Nevada foothills. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me when we arrived & I saw flocks of huge white pelicans all around the lake. I’ve been there many times & had never seen pelicans there before. I’ve never seen pelicans anywhere other than at the ocean. After I got home I did some searching on the internet to find out if what I saw was really pelicans. That’s how I found your website. I’m fascinated with these birds now. They are so beautiful…


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