Life History of the American White Pelican

Physical Description American White Pelicans are one of the largest waterbirds in North America! Adults weigh about 16.5 pounds and have a 9 -foot wingspan. Breeding adult Mature birds are Photo by Mike Stark white with black wing tips, have a large orange bill and throat pouch (“gular pouch”), and webbed feet. Juveniles look similar to adults but have a grayish wash on their head and back. Breeding birds develop a fibrous protuberance called a “nuptial tubercle” on their bill, which falls off once the mating season ends. Range and Habitat American White Pelicans winter in coastal areas and estuaries in southern California, Gulf Coast states, and down into Mexico. Breeding birds migrate to inland prairie regions of the north central U.S. and south central Canada to nest on bare islands in shallow lakes, marshes, and rivers. Non-breeding juvenile pelicans also migrate north, summering in large groups on lakes at various locations between the wintering and breeding grounds. Foraging Pelicans primarily eat fish, such as carp and shad, as well as crustaceans and amphibians. Pelicans often forage in cooperative groups by driving fish into shallow water and scooping them into their gular pouch. Adult birds eat approximately 3 pounds of food per day.
Photo by Lois Albrecht

American White Pelican with food in its gular pouch (left) Photo by Roger Ewing

Pelicans in Iowa Historical records indicate Pelicans nested on Iowa’s lakes until the late 1800s, after which numbers decreased from hunting, egg collection, and habitat disturbance. Currently in Iowa, Photo by Lois Albrecht Pelicans successfully nest on islands in the Mississippi River near Clinton. Nesting has also been attempted on some lakes in northwest Iowa, but predation by raccoons has prevented their success. Since the creation of several large reservoirs in the state, Iowa has become an important summering area for nonbreeding pelicans. The number of pelicans in Iowa vary by year and season, but can number upwards of 100,000 during peak migration.

Photo by Lois Albrecht

Reproduction Pelicans are monogamous during the breeding season and nest in large colonies. Nests are usually a scrape or depression made on bare ground lined with a few sticks, into which 2 or 3 eggs are laid. Usually only one pelican chick survives and fledges between 7 and 10 weeks of age.

Newly hatched pelican chick (above) Photo by Tyler Harms Pelican nest (left) Photo courtesy of USFWS

Photo by Jay Gilliam

Produced by Natalie Randall, 2013

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