Plants & Animals
American White Pelican
Discover these large, impressive birds fishing Missouri’s big rivers, reservoirs and wetlands.
THE AMERICAN WHITE Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) with its 9-foot wingspan and huge yellowish-orange pouched bill is one of North America’s most impressive water birds. Clad in white with black wing tips and a neck that is permanently fixed in an S-shape, pelicans are striking but a bit awkward in appearance. Breeding adults are even more intriguing as they grow a vertical plate at the end of their bill, which distinguishes them during the courtship season. During the spring and fall migration, pelicans can be found on Missouri’s reservoirs, large rivers and wetlands where they spend most of their time feeding and resting from their travels. If you are lucky enough to see a group of pelicans take flight, you will be treated to a graceful performance as these huge birds ascend to altitude, white wings reflecting in the sun, in a motion that forms a natural kaleidoscope. Historically, pelican viewing in Missouri was typically limited to locations in the western part of the state, but over the past 10 years pelicans have become a common sight at locations along the Mississippi River in eastern Missouri.
Feeding behavior of white pelicans is as fascinating as their aerial demonstrations but not quite as graceful. Unlike the brown pelican, a coastal species that dives for its food, white pelicans swim toward fish and scoop them from the water. An individual floats in place, staring intently into the water until it spies a fish near the surface. Next, the pelican drops its “fish net” in the water and bursts forward, catching its prey. Things don’t always go smoothly as pelicans often begin swimming frantically in circles, trying to close in on a skittish gizzard shad, carp or other species. Even more interesting is the team feeding behavior that pelicans exhibit as they form a semicircle and close in on their prey by herding them into shallow water or a cove where they are trapped and eaten.
Pelicans consume, on average, about 3 pounds of fish per day, often the culmination of many smaller fish. However, I recently photographed pelicans eating large individual fish, specifically Asian carp, in one meal. It is funny to watch a pelican take a fish so large that the tail of the catch is still in the bill, protruding against the soft tissue of the pouch, long after the prey has been swallowed.
If you would like a “pelican experience,” take a trip to one of Missouri’s public areas where these wonderful birds concentrate during their migration across our state. Pelicans usually arrive in Missouri starting in September and often stay around the entire winter if ice doesn’t set in on our rivers and lakes. During extreme winters pelicans fly farther south but usually return to Missouri in March and April. Some of the best areas for pelican viewing include Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, Montrose Conservation Area, Schell-Osage Conservation Area, Dresser Island at the Upper Mississippi Conservation Area and Riverlands Migratory Bird Sanctuary. For more information on conservation areas, search our online atlas at www.MissouriConservation.org/2930. Get outside and discover pelicans—you won’t be disappointed!
—story and photo by Danny Brown