My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

Note: this post, while published, is a work in progress, as are all posts in this series, My Photo Life List. My goal is to photograph every species of bird that is seen on a regular basis here in Michigan, working from a list compiled by the Michigan chapter of the Audubon Society. This will be a lifelong project, that I began in January of 2013, and as I shoot better photos of this, or any other species, I will update the post for that species with better photos when I can. While this series is not intended to be a field guide per se, my minimum standard for the photos in this series is that one has to be able to make a positive identification of the species in my photos. The information posted here is from either my observations or the Wikipedia, the online free encyclopedia, however, I have personally shot all the photos appearing in this series.

This post represents another milestone of sorts, I am starting on the second half of the list from the Audubon Society that I am working from as I add species of birds to my life list. So, I thought that once again, this post deserved to highlight a species with the “stature” befitting such a post.

American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

The American white pelican is a large aquatic soaring bird from the order Pelecaniformes. It breeds in interior North America, moving south and to the coasts, as far as Central America and South America, in winter.

The American white pelican rivals the trumpeter swan, with a similar overall length, as the longest bird native to North America. Both very large and plump, it has an overall length is about 50–70 in (130–180 cm), courtesy of the huge beak which measures 11.3–15.2 in (290–390 mm) in males and 10.3–14.2 in (260–360 mm) in females. It has a wingspan of about 95–120 in (240–300 cm). The species also has the second largest average wingspan of any North American bird, after the California condor. This large wingspan allows the bird to easily use soaring flight for migration. Body weight can range between 7.7 and 30 lb (3.5 and 13.6 kg), although typically these birds average between 11 and 20 lb (5.0 and 9.1 kg). Among standard measurements, the wing chord measures 20–26.7 in (51–68 cm) and the tarsus measures 3.9–5.4 in (9.9–13.7 cm) long. The plumage is almost entirely bright white, except the black primary and secondary remiges, which are hardly visible except in flight. From early spring until after breeding has finished in mid-late summer, the breast feathers have a yellowish hue. After molting into the eclipse plumage, the upper head often has a grey hue, as blackish feathers grow between the small wispy white crest.

The bill is huge and flat on the top, with a large throat sac below, and, in the breeding season, is vivid orange in color as is the iris, the bare skin around the eye, and the feet. In the breeding season, there is a laterally flattened “horn” on the upper bill, located about one-third the bill’s length behind the tip. This is the only one of the eight species of pelican to have a bill “horn”. The horn is shed after the birds have mated and laid their eggs. Outside the breeding season the bare parts become duller in color, with the naked facial skin yellow and the bill, pouch, and feet an orangy-flesh color.

American white pelicans nest in colonies of several hundred pairs on islands in remote brackish and freshwater lakes of inland North America. The most northerly nesting colony can be found on islands in the rapids of the Slave River between Fort Fitzgerald, Alberta, and Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. About 10–20% of the population uses Gunnison Island in the Great Basin’s Great Salt Lake as a nesting ground. The southernmost colonies are in southwestern Ontario and northeastern California. Nesting colonies exist as far south as Albany County in southern Wyoming.

They winter on the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts from central California and Florida south to Panama, and along the Mississippi River at least as far north as St. Louis, Missouri. In winter quarters, they are rarely found on the open seashore, preferring estuaries and lakes. They cross deserts and mountains but avoid the open ocean on migration.

Wild American white pelicans may live for more than 16 years. In captivity, the record lifespan stands at over 34 years.

Unlike the brown pelican, the American white pelican does not dive for its food. Instead it catches its prey while swimming. Each bird eats more than 4 pounds of food a day, mostly fish such as like Common carp, Lahontan Tui chub and shiners, Sacramento perch or Yellow perch, Rainbow trout, and jackfish. Other animals eaten by these birds are crayfish and amphibians, and sometimes larval salamanders. Birds nesting on saline lakes, where food is scarce, will travel great distances to better feeding grounds.

American white pelicans like to come together in groups of a dozen or more birds to feed, as they can thus cooperate and corral fish to one another. When this is not easily possible – for example in deep water, where fish can escape by diving out of reach –, they prefer to forage alone. But the birds also steal food on occasion from other birds, a practice known as kleptoparasitism. White pelicans are known to steal fish from other pelicans, gulls and cormorants from the surface of the water and, in one case, from a great blue heron while both large birds were in flight.

As noted above, they are colonial breeders, with up to 5,000 pairs per site. The birds arrive on the breeding grounds in March or April; nesting starts between early April and early June. During the breeding season, both males and females develop a pronounced bump on the top of their large beaks. This conspicuous growth is shed by the end of the breeding season.

The nest is a shallow depression scraped in the ground, in some twigs, sticks, reeds or similar debris have been gathered. After about one week of courtship and nest-building, the female lays a clutch of usually 2 or 3 eggs, sometimes just 1, sometimes up to 6.

Both parents incubate for about to one month. The young leave the nest 3–4 weeks after hatching; at this point, usually only one young per nest has survived. They spend the following month in a creche or “pod”, moulting into immature plumage and eventually learning to fly. After fledging, the parents care for their offspring some three more weeks, until the close family bond separates in late summer or early fall, and the birds gather in larger groups on rich feeding grounds in preparation for the migration to the winter quarters. They migrate south by September or October.

Occasionally, these pelicans may nest in colonies on isolated islands, which is believed to significantly reduce the likelihood of mammalian predation. Red foxes and coyotes readily predate colonies that they can access, the later being the only known species to hunt adult pelicans (which are too large for most bird predators to subdue). Several gulls have been known to predate pelican eggs and nestlings (including herring, ring-billed and California gull), as well as common ravens. Young pelicans may be hunted by great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, and golden eagles. The pelicans react to mammalian threats differently from avian threats. Though fairly approachable while feeding, the pelicans may temporarily abandon their nests if a human or other large mammal closely approaches the colony. If the threat is another bird, however, the pelicans do not abandon the nest and may fight off the interloper by jabbing at them with their considerable bills.

On to my photos:

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

American White Pelicans, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

This is number 176 in my photo life list, only 174 to go!

That’s it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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14 responses

  1. Crazy! Never realized that we had pelicans of any sort in Michigan, whether they are just passing through or not. Another reason to love reading your blog.

    February 16, 2015 at 1:15 am

    • Thanks Judy! I was a bit surprised to find that both white and brown pelicans sometimes visit Michigan as well. This project has turned into a real learning experience on many fronts.

      February 16, 2015 at 9:09 am

  2. Well done, over halfway. Thanks for the pictures, I love those birds.

    February 16, 2015 at 3:00 am

    • Thank you Susan!

      February 16, 2015 at 9:09 am

  3. Wonderful shots. I had no idea they were so heavy. Congratulations for getting over half way through the list.

    February 16, 2015 at 5:57 am

    • Thanks Clare! The pelicans are huge birds, it’s a wonder that they can fly as large as they are.

      February 16, 2015 at 9:10 am

  4. I never knew pelicans were so big until I saw them in Florida, but they were all brown ones. I don’t remember ever seeing a white one.
    Congratulations on making it over the hump. It’s all down hill from here!

    February 16, 2015 at 9:09 am

    • Thanks Allen! I have to track down the brown pelicans yet, they sometimes visit Michigan also. I wish it were downhill from here, but it will probably be all uphill. I’ve gotten the easy species done, now I have to find the rare and endangered species and/or species that have very limited ranges.

      February 16, 2015 at 9:14 am

  5. I’ve never seen a white pelican–beautiful creatures! We had many brown pelicans back in California which were always amusing on the docks. Seriously, do most people realize how great the birding is in Michigan? Thanks for sharing!!!

    February 16, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    • Thanks Lori! I don’t think that many residents of Michigan know what a great state for birding it is.I didn’t know that pelicans were regular visitors here until I began this project. That’s another reason that I love trying to photograph all the species that can be seen here, I’m learning a lot to go with the challenging aspects of locating and photographing them.

      February 17, 2015 at 7:07 am

  6. Impressive size for water birds – and good to read that they are still in good numbers.

    February 19, 2015 at 3:28 pm

    • Thank you for reading and commenting!

      February 19, 2015 at 4:18 pm

  7. Fascinating info and wonderful photos! Thank you~

    February 19, 2015 at 10:39 pm

    • Thank you Cindy!

      February 19, 2015 at 11:07 pm