This week’s Bird of the Week, compliments of the Weminuche Audubon Society and Audubon Rockies, is the American white pelican.
They are large and gangly looking, but when the American white pelican (pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is in flight, its efficiency in design and skill at soaring is wonderful to watch. Large flocks fly together in the classic V-shaped pattern. A close relative to the coastal brown pelican, the American white pelican appears all white with black flight feathers and a massive orange bill and orange legs. A silver-dollar sized protrusion on the top of the bill signals that the pelican is in full breeding regalia.
Their large beaks come equipped with an expandable pouch that they dip into the water to capture fish or the other aquatic organisms that make up their food source. They do not dive into the water, but feed as they float along on the surface and are sometimes observed working as a team, “herding” their catch into shallow waters where the harvest is made easier.
These pelicans may be spotted on the lakes in Pagosa Country as they migrate to larger lakes to our north for the summer breeding season or in the fall as they migrate southward to coastal wetlands for the winter. There are only about 60 locations where the American white pelican is known to breed, most of which are in the northern Great Plains and in Canada, and in western breeding grounds in central and northern California. They form large colonies on islands in or near freshwater lakes that may be many miles from where they feed.
The long nesting period, 63-70 days, produces a clutch of typically only two eggs. Young chicks, vulnerable to predation, require constant care. Often the first chick out-competes the second for food and only one survives. Parents forage for the up to 150 pounds of food necessary to bring their offspring to maturity.
While still of moderate concern, American white pelican populations have rebounded nicely from low numbers in the 1960s, when DDT pollution decimated many bird species. The major threats to this species are human intrusion on breeding grounds, illegal hunting, and destruction of critical wetland and lake habitats.
For information on future events, check our website, www.weminucheaudubon.org, and www.facebook.com/weminucheaudubon/.