Scientific Name: Pelecanus erthrorhynchos
Common Name (s): American White Pelican
The white pelican is one of the world’s largest birds. They have a wingspan of up to nine feet and can grow up to 4 feet high and weight up to 30 pounds. They are distinguished from other birds by their long neck, large bill, and immense pouch. Their pouch can stretch up to six inches and hold three gallons of water. They also have large, webbed feet and short legs. They are all white except for the black feathers on their wing edges, which are visible when their wings are outstretched in flight. During mating season, the male’s bill becomes bright orange. Males also grow a triangular plate on their upper bill called a nuptial tubercle which falls off at the end of the mating season. Outside of mating season, there is no physical difference between males and females.
The American white pelican winters in the Gulf Coast, California, and Mexico. In the summer, they live in their nesting areas of the Great Plains and Great Basin. American white pelicans migrate north in groups from February through March and south from October through November. However, American white pelicans are seen in flocks throughout the year. Some populations reside on the Texas coast and Mexico year-round. The Audubon Society created an interactive map of tracked American white pelicans throughout the year at this link.
The American white pelican feeds in shallow water by dipping its pouch into the water and capturing fish. During the day, they use their eyesight to fish but at night use their sense of touch to find fish. During their breeding season, they are more likely to forage for fish at night. They also hunt as a group where they form a line and drive fish toward the shore, or form two lines and drive fish toward one another. They survive off rough fish and crayfish.
American white pelicans are adept fliers and swimmers but very clumsy on land. They live along the coast in salt marshes and along the shores of freshwater lakes and streams. During migration, they rest at lakes, reservoirs, and rivers.
American white pelicans’ mate and nest inland on isolated islands in waterways. They arrive at breeding grounds in March or April with nesting starting between April and June. They are colonial breeders with up to 5,000 pairs congregating per site. During the breeding season, males show off their bright orange bill and nuptial tubercle, strutting around, bowing, and taking short flights to attract females. They breed in the summer and make ground nests in depressions in the sand or with sticks, grass, and reeds. Females typically produce one to three eggs. If the female lays more than one egg, typically, only one offspring will survive by outcompeting the other for resources. Males and females incubate the egg(s) for thirty days using their webbed feet. Chicks are born without hair but grow a down covering in about 10 days. The parents feed and then regurgitate food into their pouches for chicks to consume. After three to four weeks, young pelicans leave the nest and live together as a pod. At 10 weeks of age, they develop wing feathers that are large enough to fly. After fledging, parents continue to care for the young for three more weeks. Young separate from parents in late summer or early fall. White pelicans become fully mature at three years of age and have a life span of 12 to 14 years.
There are eight pelican species in the Genus Pelecanus throughout the globe, but only a few fly through Arkansas. Specifically, the American White Pelican visits lakes in Bella Vista during the winter and has been spotted at Loch Lomond in January. In 2022 we rescued a lone American white pelican from Lake Avalon that had a broken leg. A local rescue took in the bird for rehabilitation.