Pelican Passage

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Published on: Jan. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 10, 2010

from leg band returns. The National Audubon Society recorded that white pelican numbers took a long-term nose dive until the 1960s. Since then, their numbers have increased, and populations are believed stable.

Two hundred years ago, pelicans were abundant, as evidenced by journal entries in the Lewis & Clark Corps of Discovery.

"I saw a great number of feathers floating down the river . . . For three miles after I saw those feathers continuing to run in that manner," wrote Meriwether Lewis in 1804. "At length we were surprised by the appearance of a flock of Pilican (sic) at rest on a large sandbar."

There were so many of them, noted Lewis, that he didn't even attempt to count them. If a flock of 20 or so flying over our Missouri sky leaves a group of picnickers reeling, just imagine how awesome thousands must have looked.

Doris Fitchett remembers one of the first times she saw pelicans flying at Swan Lake. It was a clear, pretty morning about 30 years ago when a flock of about 200 pelicans arrived.

"I was standing near the south end of the dam, and the birds started down from the north end," she recalled. "It was just like an ocean wave as they flew down and started to land. The birds in back flew right over the ones just in front and settled into the water. It was like a rolling motion. There weren't any stragglers, just a perfect wave of birds."

Like other water birds, pelicans are not especially graceful while walking on land. They have short legs and fully webbed feet, and they waddle. They are among the most gregarious and social birds, keeping close quarters with one another. In the water, though, they are terrifically strong swimmers. A well-developed system of internal air sacks just under their skin and deeper inside their bodies helps keep them afloat. They are buoyant and draft high in the water.

To get airborne, they beat their huge wings and pound the surface of the water with both feet in unison. Once aloft, grace and elegance return.

We don't see young pelicans in Missouri because they nest in the upper Midwest, in western states and Canada. Both sexes tend the nest, which may be in a colony of just a few to several hundred pairs. Young birds eat partially predigested food from the adults' bills, sometimes appearing to climb all the way inside the offered pouch to eat.

Pelicans need Missouri's waterways to rest, eat and prepare for reproduction. Without healthy waterways, Doris Fitchett and her friend wouldn't have witnessed such an amazing sight. Without pelicans, we could only wonder what Meriwether Lewis described in his journal, and the world would be short a limerick. So watch for them next spring and exclaim to everyone who will listen, "What a wonderful bird is the pelican!"

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