Species Profile: American White Pelican

Every last member of our wetlands team voted for this shot of an American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)to feature as our Photo of the Week. The bird certainly makes a striking impression both frozen in an image and when spotted in person. It was taken at the Scout Island Nature Centre in Williams Lake, BC this July by Tania Simpson.

Not only is the American White Pelican striking, it is also a beacon of hope for conservation in British Columbia, which has one nesting colony of American White Pelicans at Stum Lake near Chilcotin (click here for map). Birds have been nesting there since 1939. Recently, numbers have increased–in the 1980s Stum Lake was home to 100 nests while in 1993 there were more than 400. A Breeding Bird Survey found that there was a 4.8 per cent increase in numbers every year since 1980. The Stum Lake pelicans winter in coastal areas of California and Mexico and efforts all along their migration path have helped in their recovery.  

American White Pelicans have faced several threats. One is habitat disruption. This is caused by human contact, dogs, power boats, and low-flying aircraft. Another comes from inconsistent water levels due to drainage, irrigation projects, and dams. A third is danger from pesticides such as DDT which has resulted in thin eggshells. Conservation efforts have helped to reduce deterioration of habitat and nesting sites. For example, White Pelican Provincial Park, which is where Stum Lake lies, is closed to the public from March 1 to August 31 to allow the birds a time of peaceful and undisturbed nesting. 

The American White Pelican is found only in North America and there are just 50,000 nesting pairs. They are listed as endangered. For every two eggs that are laid, one will fledge. These birds need wetlands of either fresh or saline water, for both their nesting sites and for feeding. They nest on island lakes away from predators and natural issues, such as droughts and floods, can wreak havoc with eggs and young. Floods submerge the nests, while droughts allow predators from the mainland to have easy access to the pelicans. Generally, however, the birds seem to succeed against these natural cycles as long as they are not also disturbed by human-related disturbances at the same time.

This species generally eat small fish found in shallow water of bays, inlets, and estuaries as well as artificial areas such as ponds. Sometimes, a group of pelicans will feed communally by driving fish into shallow waters, where the birds can scoop them up with ease. Of course, once this occurs the birds may then steal each other’s catch–or the hard-won hauls of other species.  

Let us hope that the conservation efforts of the past and present help preserve this magnificent bird for many years to come. Thank you to Tania Simpson for sharing this photo (click here to see more of Tania’s work.) To participate in our BC Wetlands photo group, follow this link.

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