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White Pelican

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One of the world's largest birds, the American white pelican weighs 5-8 kg and has a wingspan up to 3 m. As the name suggests, adult birds are primarily white, with black wing tips. Beneath the pelican's long, flattened bill is a brightly colored yellow-orange pouch used for feeding. Adult birds may have a few feathers tinged with yellow on the breast and back. Breeding birds have a pale yellow crest on the back of the head. Juvenile pelicans are similar to adults but may have a grey patch on their head and back of the neck. The iris of the eye is usually brownish in juveniles, but orange-yellow in adults. Male and female pelicans look alike throughout the year.

 

The American white pelican arrives in Alberta in late April. The birds are very social and group their nests together in colonies. They may use the same nesting site for many years. Usually, an isolated, little disturbed island in a lake is chosen. However, the oldest known colony in Alberta, documented by Sir Alexander Mackenzie in 1789, is on an island in Mountain Rapids in the Slave River. This colony is the most northerly pelican colony in the world, and the only Alberta colony on a river. Colonies may range from a few pairs to several hundred, and may also contain a number of juveniles and nonbreeding adults. The social structure seen in nesting behavior is also evident in other activities. For example, small numbers of pelicans may gather in groups to travel to preferred feeding and loafing sites. Some Alberta pelicans have been known to travel up to 70 km away from the nesting colony to preferred feeding sites. The White Pelican leaves Alberta before freeze-up in late September and migrates to warmer coastal areas to spend the winter. For the most part, pelicans from Alberta travel to the Gulf of Mexico where they winter along the coast of Florida and Mexico. However, a few individuals from here have been recorded on the Pacific side of southern Mexico. In the early spring, American white pelicans forage at the mouths of creeks and rivers where the water is open and shallow. Once the ice melts, more feeding areas become available and the pelicans move farther along the shoreline. Their main food items are young, warm-water fish such as perch, stickleback, northern pike and lake whitefish. Salamanders, frogs, and a variety of aquatic invertebrates are also taken when they are abundant. An adult pelican can consume up to 2 kg of food each day.

 

White Pelicans do not dive for fish but rather scoop them up in shallow water, quickly straining excess water from their pouches and then tilting their heads back to swallow. If food items are not readily available, a group of birds will form a line or semicircle, "herding" prey toward the shore. As this line floats forward, the birds swing their bills back and forth in the water, scooping up available prey into their enormous pouches. The pouch of a pelican can hold up to 20 litres! This foraging action also clouds the water with debris, making it difficult for fish and other prey to see the pelicans. Pelicans are often seen feeding in the same area as double-crested cormorants. When cormorants dive, they may flush small fish toward the surface to become easy targets for waiting pelicans. A group of pelicans may even rob a cormorant of fish it has just brought up from deep water.

Young pelicans are fed regurgitated food by their parents. As soon as young chicks can lift their heads, they begin begging by making loud croaking sounds while flapping their wings and weaving their heads back and forth. They bite the base of the adult's bill and pouch to signal that they are hungry. As the chicks get older, they boldly reach into the parent's throat for food or even farther to extract the gizzard's half-digested contents. This mobbing behavior eventually becomes so persistent that the harrassed adults feed the young, then quickly leave the nesting area. (Text information was provided by Alberta Government Resource Development.)

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