Species: White pelican
Scientific name: Pelicanus erythrorhynchos
Nicknames: Pelican, American white pelican
Claim to fame: Most people know what a pelican is, but many don’t realize this large, pouch-beaked bird can be seen occasionally on area lakes in the spring and fall as it migrates through this area. White pelicans are the only species of pelican to migrate through the Midwest and their migrations will begin soon. September and early October are usually the time in the fall when peak numbers of migrating pelicans are seen in this area. Pelicans are often thought of as ocean birds, but that’s not the case with the white pelican. The birds seen in Missouri are making migration trips between their summer breeding range in the Great Plains region of the northern U.S. and Canada and winter homes in the Gulf Coast region. White pelicans are the largest birds to migrate through the Midwest.
Species status: An emphasis on the creation and restoration of wetland areas throughout the Midwest has given a boost to white pelican numbers. North America’s white pelican population is currently estimated to be approximately 400,000 birds.
First discovered: The first scientific description of the white pelican was written by the German naturalist Johann Frederick Gmelin in 1789.
Family matters: White pelicans to the bird family Pelicanidae, a group of eight species occurring worldwide commonly known as the pelicans. The other major pelican species in North America, the brown pelican, resides along the coastal regions of the U.S.
Length: seven feet (wing span of nine feet)
Diet: Migrating pelicans travel along waterways consuming a variety of aquatic creatures. Pelicans are sometimes criticized by anglers for eating a large amount of sportfish. Studies have shown this criticism is somewhat undeserved. A pelican’s diet primarily consists of minnows, coarse non-game fish, crayfish and other aquatic creatures that get scooped up in its pouch.
Weight: up to 20 pounds
Distinguishing characteristics: White pelicans have several distinguishing characteristics, but their best-known feature is their pouch-like bills. Primarily, a pelican’s pouch is a fishing tool. It’s used much like an angler’s net. The food (small fish and other aquatic creatures) is scooped up in the pouch and retained while water is forced out between the closed upper and lower parts of the beak. Food is then taken down into the bird’s gullet with a backwards head toss. A pelican’s pouch can hold approximately three gallons of water. Adult pelicans rarely make noise, but when they do, it’s usually a low-pitched grunt.
Life span: probably 12 to 15 years
Habitat: Water is a vital component of all stages of a white pelican’s annual life cycle. In their summer breeding and nesting range in the northern Great Plains, white pelicans prefer lakes and marshes. In winter, it prefers the shallow lakes and coastal lagoons found along the Gulf Coast. When migrating through Missouri, pelicans can be seen on lakes and wetland areas.
Life cycle: White pelicans arrive at nesting colonies in April or May. They lay one to six eggs on a low mound built from mud and debris. Both parents incubate the eggs, which hatch between 29 and 36 days. The young leave the nest at 17-28 days, when they’re still flightless, and form groupings with young from other nests. The young usually fledge at about 10 weeks of age. Departure from the nesting colonies usually occurs some time in late August.