American White Pelican

By Diane Dragotto Williams
Wildhaven Ranch, though over 5,000 feet in altitude, has had its share of stray pelicans often blown off course.  These distinctive birds of North America, with their oversized orange-salmon bill and vast wingspan of 8 to 9 feet are one of the largest waterbirds, standing 4 feet tall! Pelecanus Erythrorhynchos winters in California looking for lakes as they migrate, causing unexpected visits in our mountains as they are caught up in a storm.  Clumsy on land, the pelican is a good swimmer and graceful in flight as they fly in flocks, with their necks bent back on their bodies. Using its long neck and expandable pouch, the pelican catches its fish by scooping up water, holding its head up and draining out the water, while swallowing its prey!  Eating up to 3 pounds of fish a day, its pouch can hold up to 3 gallons of water! Another pound of crayfish and amphibians can also be speared for meals.
Its plumage is almost entirely white, except for black primary and secondary feathered edges, sometimes visible only in flight.  Pelican groups of a dozen or more will work communally by herding fish into shallow inland lakes.  Making their summer home near inland lakes, they then prefer to forage alone, or may steal fish from other waterbirds.  Their nests are made of built-up dirt with twig, stick and reed debris, holding 1-2 dull or chalky white eggs.  The young often grow up in pods, in colonies where an abundance of pelicans provide protection. Colony predators include foxes, coyotes and large avians.  Young pelicans are sometimes hunted by great horned owls and bald eagles.  Avian interlopers will be met by aggression with jabs of their enormous pelican bills. But mammals usually force pelicans to abandon their nests.
Soaring high on thermals, pelicans fly in a straight line or V formation, migrating across the western, southwestern and Gulf Coast states into Canada, and as far as Central and South America.  Braving storms, weather changes, different topography and sometimes toxic waters has made this striking aquatic bird quite a survivor.   At Wildhaven Ranch, visits from White American Pelicans gave us great amusement as we watched our guests easily consume pounds of fish, only to wait patiently for more to materialize! They always left with a smile on their beaks!
Wildhaven Ranch is a wildlife sanctuary in the San Bernardino Mountains specializing in educating the public about wildlife in our ecosystem. Visit them at or call for tours at (909) 337-7389.

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