This week we will dive into learning about the American White Pelican, one of two pelican species that can be found in North America. The American white pelican is one of the country’s largest birds, with a 9.5-foot wingspan, only second in size to the California condor. When standing on the ground, the white pelican can reach up to 6 feet tall, when including its beak. The white pelican also holds the record for the longest bill; its bright yellow bills measure 1.5 feet long. As its name suggests, the American white pelican is mostly white, with black feathers on the edges of its wings that are only visible when in flight.
The American white pelican is a true “snowbird.” American white pelicans spend their summers inland, breeding on isolated islands on freshwater lakes in the northern Great Plains. Unlike brown pelicans, which make their nests in trees, white pelicans nest on the ground. Pelican females typically lay two eggs that they incubate with their large webbed feet. The pelican’s eggshells need to be strong to withstand the weight of the bird. During mid-20th century there was a great decline in pelican numbers due to the use of pesticides that weakened the egg shells. Luckily, pelican numbers have rebounded with the ban of these hazardous chemicals.
Pelicans often have two hatchlings, but usually only one chick survives to adulthood. What happens is called siblicide, where the stronger chick kills the weaker chick in the competition for food. Because white pelican parents work hard to provide the 150 pounds of food it takes to raise a child to adulthood, this behavior ensures that each pair can raise at least one healthy chick. Ten weeks later, when the chick is weaned and fending for themselves, the new family migrates south. Large groups of pelicans migrate in V-formation to their wintering grounds along the coasts of the United States. In the Florida Keys, white pelicans can be found feeding in shallow bays and estuaries and are most often seen in groups of 10 or more.
During feeding, they will form a line and work cooperatively to corral schools of fish from deeper water into shallower nearshore waters. As they move forward, they take turns lunging to scoop up the fleeing fish in their beaks. White pelicans can be found congregating in big groups on isolated mangrove islands at night. These isolated islands help protect them from predators. White pelicans are much shyer than brown pelicans and are easily distressed by humans. Observing them is better done from a distance so you do not disturb their behavior. A pair of binoculars comes in handy when searching for the white pelicans.
To look for them in “the Real Florida,” check out the many Florida State Parks along the coastline this winter by visiting floridastateparks.com to plan your trip. Becky Collins is a park ranger at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.