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Time is right for white pelican sightings

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 1, 2013 - Eagle sightings are scarcer than usual this warm winter, but a trek to dam sites along the Mississippi River may reward nature lovers with panoramas of another awesome bird fishing the river in huge numbers.

A recent visit to the lock and dam at Clarksville yielded only two eagle sightings. But hundreds of American white pelicans were swimming, flying, and feasting on the easy pickings of fish stunned by their passage through the dam.

The American white pelican has a wingspan of about nine feet — second only in the United States to the California condor. (The bald eagle’s wingspan is only about 7 ½ feet.) While swimming, this pelican appears all white. But when it takes to the sky, its black flight feathers make for a dramatic sight. 

According to Candy Chambers, wildlife refuge specialist, and Mick Hanan, wildlife biologist at the Great River and Clarence Cannon National Wildlife Refuge in Annada, Mo., pelicans migrating along this stretch of the Mississippi are a relatively new phenomenon. Before the flood of 1993 the migration pathway was farther west. 

Observers can see that these birds are on their way to their northern breeding grounds. Mature adults sport a flattened knob on their huge beaks as a signal that they are ready to mate. This knob drops off after mating is completed and eggs are laid.

Pelicans nest in large colonies of up to 5,000 pairs in scattered areas of the American West and upper Midwest and in Manitoba and Saskatchewan provinces of Canada. To avoid the predators that eat their eggs and chicks, they like to colonize on islands in a large body of water. There is even a nesting colony site in the middle of the Great Salt Lake.

The American white pelican practices serial monogamy.  A pair mates for a season and takes turns incubating the two eggs. Usually only one hatchling survives because sibling rivalry in this species takes a lethal turn, and the first to hatch tends to kill its slightly younger nest-mate.

In the fall, the small nuclear pelican family flies together to the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico or Southern California and into Mexico.  Families socialize and join other family groups for the spring migration north; migrating flocks tend to be quite large in the spring.

As they migrate, the pelicans soar on thermal currents as much as possible. They are big birds (16-20 pounds) and must use lots of energy flapping their wings, according to Chambers. If they are flying in formation, they will draft off the leader and will take turns in the lead to conserve energy. Avideo of soaring pelicans is worth a look.

The American white pelican does not dive bomb its prey like the brown pelican. Instead it dips its bill under water to fill its expandable pouch with water and fish. It cocks its head to drain the water and then swallows what is left.

Fishing is usually a cooperative undertaking. While foraging, several birds will “herd” a school of fish with beating wings and working legs alternating with bill dipping. This strategy will move the fish toward shore and shallower water, so that each bill-full will have more food and less water. These big hungry birds eat a lot — estimates vary from about four pounds a day to 40 percent of their body weight. This video shows pelicans circling some prey.

Usually the pelicans stay in this area through March, but as they are good fliers they may not always be fishing at the same site. If you are fortunate enough to find a flock at work and play, the sight is — in a word — awesome.