American White Pelican

 

American White PelicanThere are about ten species of pelicans distributed through out the world, mostly confined to those countries having warm climates. Three of the species inhabit North America.

These once-scarce pouched birds appear in Oklahoma and the numbers have been on the increase since the 1960s. They are often found in large flocks on reservoirs and rivers across most of the state during migration from early February - May and early September - November.

In 1838 Audubon gave this species the specific name American. In writing of the naming of this species he notes: “In consequence of this discovery, I have honored it with the name of my beloved country, over the mighty streams of which may this splendid bird wander free and unmolested to the most distant times, as it has already done in the misty ages of unknown antiquity.”

Adult white pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, are one of the largest birds weighing 16 pounds with an impressive 9-foot wing span. One must look closely at the birds as they ride the heat thermals on clear days to realize they are pelicans. While flying they seem to soar in unison, each flapping their wings at the same time while circling ever so higher. They are truly an amazing bird to watch in flight.

Pelicans are often mistaken for snow geese, swans and whooping cranes by the novice birder. Their distinct black primary and outer secondary feathers are sure indicators as to what they are. At a closer view you will notice they have a tucked neck an orange bill, legs, and feet. The final distinguishing characteristic is their stocky build giving them an all-together different profile than other birds.

White pelicans fish in groups by floating atop the water. They use their feet and wings to corral fish. Instead of diving they simply dip their heads below the surface to troll for rough fish such as gizzard shad. They scoop the fish up in their elastic pouch. Most feeding takes place during the early morning and early evening hours. An average. pelican will consume three pounds of fish per day.

Pelicans nest in colonies on sandbars, islands, and since the peninsulas in remote, undisturbed areas. Their breeding range extends from the prairies of Canada into the mountain states, to the Gulf Coast of Texas and Mexico. Preferred nesting habitats are islands, especially those associated with fresh water lakes. They forage primarily in shallow lakes, marshlands, and rivers.

Birds that are mature enough to reproduce will develop “nuptial tubercles,” or large ridges on top of their bills, and ornamental plumes atop their head. Once chick feeding begins, the ridges fall off and the birds develop black feathers on the back of the head. Their eye color also changes from dark to light as their breeding status changes.

Nests are built as ground depressions lined with dried vegetation. Pelicans lay an average of two eggs and incubate them using their feet since they don’t have the typical “brood patch” of bare skin on the belly. White pelican chicks hatch helpless, with homely, orange skin. They eat by digging digested food out of the adult’s pouch. As chicks mature, they join a “pod” or “gang” and feed in large groups until they are ready to fly at about 10 weeks.

Avid bird watchers and novice bird watchers alike flock to the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge every September to participate in their week long Pelican celebration. Approximately 50,000-70,000 White Pelicans use the Salt Plains as a rest stop during their fall migra­tion. It is an incredible site that everyone should see at least once.