American White Pelicans

White Pelican Flying

McNary National Wildlife Refuge hosts a large population of American white pelicans, although how many varies wildly from day to day. But visit us on a summer's day, and there's a good chance you'll get to meet a pelican.

The pelicans found on McNary are American white pelicans. There are many differences between our pelicans and the coastal brown pelicans, but the only the difference you need to know to identify them is that they are . . . white. Simple. There's nothing else that looks like our pelican.

The American white pelican rivals the trumpeter swan as the longest bird native to North America. Both very large and very plump, the pelican has an overall length is about 50-70 inches, although a big part of that is the beak; the huge beak measures 11.3-15.2 inches in males and 10.3-14.2 inches in females. It has a wingspan of about 95-120 inches, which is the second largest average wingspan of any North American bird, after the California condor. Body weight can range between 9.2 and 30 pounds, although typically these birds average between 11 and 20 pounds. The plumage is almost entirely bright white, except the black primary and secondary remiges (the comparatively large, stiff feathers of a bird's wing necessary for flight), which are hardly visible except in flight. From early spring until after breeding has finished in mid-late summer, the breast feathers have a yellowish hue. Apart from the difference in size, males and females look exactly alike.

The bill is huge and flat on the top, with a large throat sac below, and, in the breeding season, is vivid orange in color, as is the iris, the bare skin around the eye and the feet. In the breeding season, there is a laterally flattened "horn" on the upper bill, located about one-third the bill's length behind the tip. This is the only one of the eight species of pelican to have a bill "horn." The horn is shed after the birds have mated and laid their eggs. Outside of the breeding season the bare parts become duller in color, with the naked facial skin yellow and the bill, pouch and feet an orangy-flesh color.

Wild American white pelicans may live for more than 16 years. In captivity, the record lifespan stands at over 34 years.

The American white pelican is a graceful flier, either singly, in flight formations, or soaring on thermals in flocks. They soar in different portions of thermals for different distances—wandering flights in lower portions of a thermal, commuting flights at middle heights and cross-country flights in the upper reaches of thermal columns.


Pelican eating habitats are very unique. Read on. 

White Pelican Feeding




Unlike the brown pelican, the white pelican does not dive for its food. Instead, it dips its head underwater while swimming to scoop up fish. Each bird eats more than 4 pounds of food a day, mostly fish. Other animals eaten by these birds are crayfish and amphibians. Researchers have found regurgitated fish hooks and lures in colonies, suggesting that pelicans also take game fish that have been injured or slowed by anglers. American white pelicans like to come together in groups of a dozen or more birds to feed, as they can thus cooperate and corral fish to one another. They move into a circle to concentrate fish and then dip their heads underwater simultaneously to catch the fish. When this is not easily possible—for example in deep water where fish can escape by diving out of reach—they prefer to forage alone. But the birds also steal food on occasion from other birds, a practice known as kleptoparasitism. White pelicans are known to steal fish from other pelicans, gulls and cormorants from the surface of the water and, in one case, from a great blue heron while both large birds were in flight.


Concerned about pelicans? That's the next page. 

American White Pelicans


Current Status & Threats


Pelicans are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. In localized locations whte pelicans can be rare, like the state of Washington where they are listed as State Endangered. However, on a global scale the species is quite common, enough to qualify it as a Species of Least Concern according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. According to NatureServe, populations are of particular concern in California, Idaho, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and British Columbia, Canada.

Occasionally, coyotes will kill a white pelican, the only known species to hunt adult pelicans. Several gulls have been known to predate pelican eggs and nestlings (including herring, ring-billed and California gulls), as well as common ravens. Young pelicans may be hunted by great horned owls and bald eagles. When protecting nests, pelicans fight off interlopers by jabbing at them with their considerable bills.

However, there are significantly larger threats than predation to pelicans. Habitat loss is the largest known cause of nesting failure, with flooding and drought being recurrent problems. Human-related losses include entanglement in fishing gear, boating disturbance and poaching, as well as additional habitat degradation. They are also shot, either illegally for trophies or in an attempt to protect fish stocks, although white pelicans typically do not eat commercially valuable fish.

There was a pronounced decline in white pelican numbers in the mid-20th century, attributable to the excessive spraying of DDT, endrin and other organochlorides in agriculture, as well as widespread draining and pollution of wetlands. Shoreline erosion at breeding colonies remains a problem in some cases, as are the occasional mass poisonings when pesticides are used near breeding or wintering sites, and altered lake levels (flooding or drainage) can render their breeding habitat unsafe. But the good news is that populations have recovered well after stricter environmental protection laws came into effect and are stable or slightly increasing today.

Much of the text for this article was taken from Wikipedia and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and verified by us.