It’s a new year with all the hopes of better times ahead and for pelicans, every new decade brings additional rebound in their numbers. In the 1970s, populations plummeted due to secondary impacts from DDT and other pesticides causing thinning of their eggshells. These large birds use their expansive webbed feet to incubate their eggs and their heavy weight caused fragile eggs to collapse resulting in chick mortality. These toxins now banned, pelicans have increased in numbers and are often seen in our inland region.
The brown pelican is the only nonwhite pelican in the world. Their large greyish bodies include a long gray bill and black belly with white on their heads. Like many of our bird species, breeding adults and chick-rearing adults have variations in feather patterns which make viewing them throughout the year a real treat. Even more remarkable, there are also regional color variations across the U.S. Juveniles are more brownish version with darker brown heads and white bellies, taking up to four years to mature to adult plumage.
The American white pelican is all white with a bright orange-colored bill and throat pouch. Juveniles are dusky with a grey bill and pouch. Even more astonishing than the color variations of the brown pelican, white pelicans boast dramatic, black-tipped wings in flight and breeding adults grow a peculiar circular plate roughly the size of a half dollar on their upper bill.
Once breeding these enormous birds lay just a small number of eggs in a stick or straw nest. Breeding in colonies, after nesting season brown pelicans use their nine-foot wingspans to take them as far as British Columbia. White pelicans breed from that region to the Texas Gulf Coast. Making use of rising air currents, they soar to wintering grounds in Florida and Southern Panama.
Brown pelicans fly in small groups, gliding just inches over the surface of the ocean waves. When they dive, it is a dramatic, “all heads in” kind of cannonball before they pop back up with a pouch full of water and fish. Twisting their heads to empty the water, they’ll swallow their meal then flap off to begin all over again.
White pelicans swim in groups to corral fish, dipping huge bills to snatch up a slippery meal. Watch for them to tip their head up to drain water before gulping the fish whole. Often the shape and size of prey can be seen through the paper-like flapping skin of their pouch. Lined with many blood vessels, you may see them quivering and fluttering it on very hot days to help cool this enormous bird.
In our area watch for long lines of migrating white pelicans soaring overhead or take a trip to some of our larger inland lakes and scan with binoculars. White pelicans are often seen bobbing in groups while brown pelicans hang around edges of piers to beg from fishermen.