Pelican Passage

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 10, 2010

The first time I heard someone point to the sky and exclaim, "Hey, here comes a flock of pelicans," I thought he was pulling my leg. Pelicans in Missouri? We were at a picnic, and I figured he was trying to get me to gape at the sky just long enough so he could swipe the last cookie from my plate and devour it while I wasn't looking.

Soon after, we were standing at the edge of a pasture watching about 20 white pelicans circle before landing with a great splash and surfing of feet on a small lake in southwest Missouri. Watching them bank and tilt against a blazing blue sky-which they did for quite a while-left me dizzy. My friend could have stolen my last cookie, and I would never have noticed.

They really were white pelicans and they had landed-like they do every spring-on a Missouri waterway to rest and eat before flying farther north to breed. American white pelicans leave their winter homes in the southern U.S. coastal states and fly north, passing through Missouri in March, April, May and sometimes June. While in Missouri, white pelicans eat, rest and hang out on our rivers, lakes and ponds.

Pelicans fly in solemn groups with their heads held back on their shoulders and bills tucked tight. They have a wingspan of 8 to 9 1/2 feet, and they beat their wings just one or two long, slow strokes per second. Weighing 10 to 17 pounds, they need considerable strength to stay aloft.

On top of all this impressive size, white pelicans can appear almost blinding white. The white is offset by flashy black wing tips and bright orangish-yellow feet, eyes and bill.

The other member of the pelican family found in North America-the endangered brown pelican-is much smaller and lives exclusively near coastal areas. Brown pelicans are known for making wild nose dives into the surf after fish. White pelicans don't make the same athletic dives after food, but they do something just as remarkable: they herd fish. Working in synchronized lines of five or six or more, they make a big production of flapping and splashing to move the fish along. Once corralled into shallow water or encircled by two or more lines of pelicans, the fish are easy prey.

A wonderful bird is the pelican/His bill can hold more than his belican, begins Dixon Lanier Merritt's

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