The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is a large aquatic 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.
White Pelicans in flight
Status and conservation
This species is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. It has the California Department of Fish and Game protective status California species of special concern (CSC). On a global scale however, the species is common enough to qualify as a Species of Least Concern according to the IUCN.
Habitat loss is the largest known cause of nesting failure, with flooding and drought being recurrent problems. Human-related losses include entanglement in fishing gear, boating disturbance and poaching as well as additional habitat degradation.
There was a pronounced decline in American White Pelican numbers in the mid-20th century, attributable to the excessive spraying of DDT, endrin and other organochlorides in agriculture as well as widespread draining and pollution of wetlands. But populations have recovered well after stricter environmental protection laws came into effect, and are stable or slightly increasing today. By the 1980s, more than 100,000 adult American White Pelicans were estimated to exist in the wild, with 33,000 nests altogether in the 50 colonies in Canada, and 18,500 nests in the 14–17 United States colonies. Shoreline erosion at breeding colonies remains a problem in some cases, as are the occasional mass poisonings when pesticides are used near breeding or wintering sites.
The White Pelican does not dive for fish as the Brown Pelican does. Instead, it dips its head underwater to scoop up fish. Several pelicans may fish cooperatively, moving into a circle to concentrate fish, and then dipping their heads under simultaneously to catch fish.
Breeds mainly on isolated islands in freshwater lakes, forages on inland marshes, lakes, or rivers, favoring shallows. Islands used for breeding are often 30 or more miles from foraging areas. During the nonbreeding season, American White Pelicans favor shallow coastal bays, inlets, and estuaries.
The American White Pelican forages mainly on fish in shallow wetlands; crayfish, tadpoles and salamanders are also eaten. Researchers have found regurgitated fish hooks and lures in colonies, suggesting that pelicans also take game fish that have been injured or slowed by anglers.
The nest is a shallow depression with a low rim that the bird forms while it is sitting, by raking up gravel, soil, or nearby vegetation with its bill. The nest bottom consists of the same material, and vegetative insulation or lining within the nest is rare.
Nests in colonies on islands that aren’t subject to regular flooding. The eggs are typically laid on bare gravel, sand, or soil with little vegetation in the immediate area. In forested regions, the American White Pelican sometimes will nest under either deciduous or coniferous trees.
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 and Bald 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.
The American White Pelican is a graceful flier, either singly, in flight formations, or soaring on thermals in flocks. They soar in different portions of thermals for different distances: wandering flights in lower portions of a thermal, commuting flights at middle heights, and cross-country flights in the upper reaches of thermal columns. They are skilled swimmers, but they do not plunge-dive for prey like their coastal relatives the Brown Pelican. Instead they make shallow dives from the surface of the water or just plunge their heads underwater. They often hunt for food in groups in shallow water.