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Pelicans Make Quite A Splash on Their Migratory Pitstops

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

Twice a year, when migrating, American white pelicans pass through Will County. These large, unmistakable birds stop in our waterways for rest and an opportunity to eat before continuing their long migratory journey.

Three American white pelicans standing on rocks in the water.
(Photo by Chad Merda)

In the spring, they usually seem to be in more of a hurry, anxiously heading north to their breeding grounds. But in the fall, on their way back to warmer spaces to wait out the winter, they take their time. They linger longer, giving us more opportunities to view these large, spectacular birds.


Here are five fun facts about the American white pelican!


Heavy flyers

A pelican flying in the air.
(Photo courtesy of Chad Morsch)

Pelicans are huge water birds! They can weigh up to 19 pounds, but usually average around 14 pounds. They are one of the heaviest birds that is also capable of flight! They have a 9-foot wingspan, and these large, broad wings help them achieve this feat. When flying, they have a slow and steady flap.

 

Words to know

Durable: Able to withstand wear, pressure or damage.

Linger: Stay in place longer than necessary.

Migratory: Relating to animal migratory.

 

They have black feathers at the underneath edge and tips of their wings. These are only noticeable when they spread their wings. The pigment that makes the color black helps make these feathers stronger and more durable than the white feathers.


Pelicans are also able to take advantage of thermals and soar through the air. Thermals are spirals of hot air that rise from the ground. Because hot air rises, the air is literally pushing up on their large wings, keeping them in the air without the need to flap. This saves them a lot of energy, especially as they migrate across the U.S. twice a year. You can see for yourself how thermals work with a fun experiment.


Long beak with annual bump


Maybe the most identifiable feature of the American white pelican is their ginormous beak, measuring more than 1 foot long. Thanks to their beaks, you can never mistake a pelican for a swan, the other large white bird that swims in our waterways. The top half of the beak has a hook at the tip. This hook gives the pelican more grip when trying to hold on to slippery fish.

Three American white pelicans flying in the air.
These pelicans are sporting their nuptial tubercles. (Photo courtesy of Jim Kloss_

During mating season, both male and female pelicans will grow an odd, rounded, flat hump on the top of their beaks. It is called a nuptial tubercle. Pelicans are not able to grow this ornamental plate until they are at least 3 years old. Once breeding season ends, the hump falls off. They will grow a new one the following year.


Gular pouch


A pelican’s beak is connected to a thick and flexible layer of skin. It is called a gular pouch. This stretchy throat pouch can hold up to 3 gallons of water. They use this gular as a scoop, filling it with fish and water. Then they raise their bills to drain the water and swallow the fish whole.


Unlike many cartoon images, pelicans do not use their gular to store food. But they can use it to help keep cool. They open their beak and rapidly shake their gular. As it flutters, the nearby air moves faster, evaporating the water in their mouths and cooling nearby blood vessels. You may have witnessed this behavior before, and now you know why.


Cooperative corralling


A pelican’s favorite food is fish. They like to eat minnows, carp and suckers that are found in shallow waters. They have been known to steal from each other and from other birds rather than hunt for themselves. But they are also known for working together to hunt.


Large flocks of pelicans swim in the same direction, dip their bills into the water and flap their wings to drive a bunch of fish toward shore. To corral means to gather together, so it is no wonder this herding behavior is often called corralling. It is a very efficient method for them to find food. Check out video of American white pelicans corralling for food.


Four Rivers’ confluence


A confluence is where two rivers join. The DuPage River joins the Des Plaines River right on the shores of Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon. This confluence has shallow waters full of American white pelicans’ favorite fish. In fact, this location has become a regular stopping ground for these migrating birds. During fall migration as many as 900 pelicans have been observed in this spot at once! The average number is closer to 150.

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