By Bill George
Amelia Island Bird Club
April 4, 2022
The American White Pelican is the largest Pelican in the U.S. It is more than a foot longer in length than the Brown Pelican that resides year round in Florida. Its wing span is 2 feet wider than that of the Brown Pelican. Most field guides do not list the White Pelican as a winter resident of our area, much less a summer resident. Nevertheless, on field trips I lead in the area in and around Amelia Island, we have observed White Pelicans in all seasons. Before addressing the reasons for this phenomenon, I will write a few words about the White Pelicans.
According to my friend from Minnesota who studied White Pelicans for his Masters in Ornithology, the birds hang out in groups and herd fish as a group. Instead of diving for fish like the Brown Pelicans, they dip their bill into the water while swimming. Their black wing tips are an aid in flight since dark feathers wear better and cut through the air better than their white feathers. When observing a squadron of White Pelicans flying, don’t be surprised that they literally disappear when they bank or turn. While breeding, these Pelicans will display a large knob on their upper beak.
From my home state of Minnesota, I observed hundreds of White Pelicans on western Minnesota lakes. Their nests were located on islands in these lakes. They have few predators and while a former generation may have shot them to protect fish populations, shootings of Pelicans are rare. Because they have few, if any predators, their populations have continued to expand.
When I moved from Minnesota to Florida in 2014, I did not expect to see many White Pelicans, especially during summer. Obviously they did not move here when I did. Although expanding populations might explain expansion of their range, there may be other reasons. Since their food source is fish, White Pelicans that normally wintered in the Gulf area of Florida probably moved here when fish populations died due to red algae breakouts in the Gulf of Mexico side of Florida. But what explains White Pelicans in our area during summer months? My observations have never witnessed breeding Pelicans with knobs on their beaks. Accordingly, immature and young adults not yet ready for breeding have better success staying in our area than migrating to Western States and Canada where expanding populations have made the competition for food more challenging
Whatever reason explains the appearance of the American White Pelican in our area, you should enjoy watching them on local lakes in our area or salt water inlets along the Atlantic Ocean. Huguenot Memorial Park is a good place to see them. You can also join the Amelia Island Bird Club that I lead with at least 10 trips a year by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: We are fortunate to have Bill George share his knowledge on the beautiful White Pelicans seen in our area.. Bill is an outstanding birder who leads the Amelia Island Bird Club on trips throughout the year. Thank you, Bill, for your contribution to the Fernandina Observer.