The Great American White Pelicans are on the move North

American White Pelican in Flight

Now is an excellent time for bird watchers to see one of the largest birds in the world. The American White Pelican is beginning to return from their winter home along the Gulf coast from Florida to Mexico. They begin the return to their nesting grounds in mid-march. The Pelicans begin to show up in the central United States in such areas as Illinois, Nebraska, Wyoming and Colorado. The majority will stay in these locations for 3 to 5 weeks, and then they move on to their primary summer nesting grounds. The summer nesting gorunds can be found from southern Canada to the Norther United States, from the upper Mississippi River Valley west to Northern California

The American White Pelican, one of two species of pelicans in North America, can weigh as much as 28 to 30 pounds with a 9 foot wingspan. These beautiful birds are primarily white except for its black-tiped wings that can only be seen when they are flying. They have a long neck, a long orange bill with an expandable pouch and orange legs with webbed feet.

American White Pelicans are highly social and live in large, highly populated colonies. Groups of pelicans have been known to work together to encircle and drive their prey, small fish and/or crustaceans, into shore where they are easier to catch.

These birds do not dive into the water for their food like the Brown Pelican. They float on the water using their pouches to scoop up water and fish and then hold their head up to drain away the water then swallowing the food.

They breed during the summer in inland shallow freshwater lakes, prairie wet lands and marshes. These birds are clumsy on land, but they are excellent swimmers and very graceful in flight. The American White Pelican flies in evenly spaced lines or V formations like geese and swans, but geese and swans fly with their necks outstretched while the pelicans fly with their necks doubled back against their shoulders. When watching them fly in formation you will notice that they have a rhythmic pattern to their wing beats that flows from the lead bird to the back of the formation.

Courtship and pairing occur soon after they arrive at the northern nesting sites. Newly formed pairs select nest sites next to other pairs in the same stage of the breeding cycle. Nests are usually located on open, bare soil. Both sexes build the nest, which consists of a shallow depression surrounded by a low rim of gravel, soil, or plant material. Two eggs are laid and both sexes work together to incubate them. The young are born featherless and blind, but gain sight in about two days, and are completely dependent on their parents for food and warmth. The young chicks feed by reaching down their parents throats for requrgitated food with the older chick usually getting the majority of the food allowing it to grow faster than the second born chick which usually dies. After leaving the nest, the young pelicans gather in groups called "creches". Parents continue to feed their young until the chicks leave the colony at 10 - 11 weeks of age.

American White Pelicans are not approachable as are Brown Pelicans and they tend to shy away from people and developed areas. If they feel threatened they may abandon their nests including the eggs or chicks, so please use care when observing them, do not scare or annoy them. When they are in an area feeding they can be seen throughout the entire day. For the best viewing remember to bring your binoculars and enjoy these magnificant birds.

Some of the best places to see The American White Pelican during the spring and summer nesting season are: The Middle Mississippi Valley - Grafton, Illinois - Marsh Lake, Minnesota - Red Wing, Minnesota - Pelican Lake, Minnesota - Chase Lake Nat'l Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota - Sheridan County, Montana. If you would like to find other locations to observe these birds, Google American White Pelican viewing locations.

These beautiful birds will start the return trip to their wintering grounds in September and it will run through November.


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