By Mary Lundeberg
Migrating American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) have returned to Florida for the winter. I always feel lucky to spot these snowbirds — one of the largest birds on the continent — and enjoy them while they winter here.
IDENTIFYING: Their plumage is white except for their rigid black wing feathers, visible primarily in flight. With 9-foot wingspans, these majestic birds soar gracefully in V formations when they ride the air thermals high above us.
Where they came from: White pelicans migrate both east and west of the Rocky Mountains. These Florida snowbirds likely breed in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan or Canada and migrate here along the Mississippi River valley.
SOCIAL BIRDS: In addition to feeding cooperatively, these birds nest together in huge colonies with up to 5,000 pairs per site in some parts of Canada, and they migrate in large flocks. Males are slightly heavier than females, although both are plump, weighing more than 16 pounds. They crowd together on sand bars in shallow Florida waters, sharing space with brown pelicans, cormorants, terns and vultures.
FEEDING: Unlike the locally more common brown pelican, the American white pelican does not dive for fish. Groups of white pelicans swim in a circle to corral fish, dip their heads underwater, and then scoop about four pounds of food a day into their orange pouches.
Contrary to cartoons, pelicans do not carry food in their bill pouches. They drain the water from their pouch and swallow their prey before taking off. Generally, these immense snow birds get along well with resident birds — although they occasionally practice kleptoparasitism, a foraging strategy that involves stealing fish from other pelicans, gulls or cormorants.
CONFLICT WITH ANGLERS: As opportunistic feeders, white pelicans sometimes try to grab fish from anglers and fishing boats, and may get injured in the process. During the winter months, the Wildlife Center of Venice and the Peace River Wildlife Center report increased numbers of pelicans require rehabilitation from fishing tackle injuries and from ingesting large fish bone scraps which puncture them. If you hook a pelican, never cut the line. Instead, follow the tips at http://bit.ly/2OPNXTt.
BREEDING: American white pelicans mate for life. Both sexes develop a big bump on their upper bill during breeding season and engage in courtship rituals, such as bowing, strutting and touching bills. This “bill horn” is shed after their eggs are laid. Males and females share parenting duties.
SYMBOLISM: According to legend, a pelican mother will pierce her breast to feed her own blood to her chicks. In reality, pelicans regurgitate food for their chicks. The legend may have begun when a pelican’s white breast was stained from regurgitating a bloody fish. Thus, early Christians used the pelican to symbolize Christ’s sacrifice, and the image of a pelican feeding baby pelicans can be found on Christian alters in some Catholic churches. In many cultures, these birds symbolize peace and good luck.