One of the most obvious field marks of the White Pelican is its huge yellow-orange bill. You might see a flock of White Pelicans swimming in a line. They aren’t just swimming but are working together to surround fish and round them up! Unlike the diving Brown Pelican, the White Pelicans feed while they swim by putting their heads under the water and scooping up fish with their large bills. They are capable of holding about 3 gallons of water with their pouches distended!
White Pelicans are one of North America’s largest birds and have an 8-9 foot wing span. They are pure white with just black wing tips and a large yellow-orange bill. During breeding season, they have pale yellow crests and a flat rounded horn-like growth on the ridge of their bill. This growth is only found during breeding season and is shed after their eggs have been laid. Immature birds are paler with a gray to flesh colored bill, pale orange legs and a brownish color to the wing tips. They have brownish eyes and have a gray-brown patch on their heads and neck. They resemble adults by their second year. They are larger than the Brown Pelican and males are larger than females.
Range and Habitat
White pelicans migrate in long lines in V-formation to lagoons and estuaries along the southern coast of the United States and Mexico during the summer. They can be found wintering along the central Coast of California. They are often found at lakes, marshes, salt bays and beaches.
White pelicans are usually silent, only grunting or croaking on nesting grounds. They are social and gregarious birds, and travel in flocks. It is common to see them hanging out together on the rocks. They eat fish and crayfish but will also eat amphibians. They feed both in the day and at night. Sometimes they are often found cooperating and feeding with Double-Crested Cormorants. When the cormorants dive for fish, the fish will head towards the surface where the white pelican waits to scoop them up. Although clumsy on land, they are agile in the air and have a soaring flight; they hold their heads drawn back and alternate flapping and guiding. You might notice them wheeling in wide circles high in the air.
Breeding and Nesting
White Pelicans do not breed until they are 3 years old. You will find them breeding in wetlands throughout western North America. They nest in large colonies with other wetland birds which helps to reduce predation of the young by animals. White Pelicans perform circular courtship flights over their nesting area. This flight not only them binds them together but also serves to advertise the nesting colony to other pelicans. They continue to court on the ground by strutting and bowing. They are monogamous and actively defend their nesting areas. They build their nests on a depression in the ground, sometimes building up the nest with dirt and debris. The female lays 2-3 whitish eggs. The eggs are incubated under the feet of the parents. The largest chick usually will manage to kill off any siblings. The young chick is fed by regurgitation with the chick reaching into its parent’s bill. The chick leaves the nest when it fledges, in about 10-11 weeks of age.