American White Pelicans: Florida’s Other Snowbird
American white pelicans are one of the largest birds in North America with wingspans up to 9.5 feet across, or in other words, a wingspan that can reach from your floor to your ceiling (assuming you live in an average Florida home)!
Although some migratory bird maps do not show American white pelicans migrating to inland Central Florida, squadrons of these majestic birds have been observed on lakes throughout Polk County for years.
American white pelicans are large water birds with broad wings and long necks. Their bodies are thick with short, square tails, large bills, and short legs. American white pelicans, as their name suggests, are mostly white with a yellow-orange bill, pouch, legs, and feet. In addition, their flight feathers have black on the underside and tips of the wings.
Occasionally, you’ll see a vertical plate, or “horn”, on top of the male’s bill. That horn is leftover from the breeding season and is thought to distinguish those males as better or stronger mates. You can see examples of this plate, on the Cornell Ornithology website, here.
Migration and Habitat
Unlike brown pelicans, which are year-round Florida residents, American white pelicans migrate to Florida during the winter. During the winter months, they are usually found along the coast and in our inland lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Squadrons of American white pelicans have been reported on lakes throughout Polk County. They can be especially frequent along the Winter Haven Chain of Lakes, in the wetlands at Circle B Bar Reserve, and seen soaring overhead anywhere in the county.
American white pelicans are often observed with double-crested cormorants, anhingas, and pie-billed grebes in Polk County. Although the variety of bird species target different fish at different depths, they often forage together. From time to time, the two birds even nest together in the same nesting colonies. American white pelicans do not breed or nest while they are visiting Florida. Their breeding grounds are found in the northern part of the Western USA and in Canada.
Diet and Behavior
American white pelicans’ diets mainly consist of small fish that they can herd into to shallow water but their prey of choice will change with the water’s depth. White pelicans often forage on:
- sluggish bottom feeders
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), white pelicans feed differently than brown pelicans. Brown pelicans plunge dive to feed on their prey, however, American white pelicans feed on the surface of the water. Groups of white pelicans will coordinate their swimming to chase schools of fish towards more shallow water. By doing this, they are able to easily scoop their prey out of the water.
White pelicans often steal food from other water birds. About one-third of the time, they are able to successfully steal fish from other pelicans trying to swallow large fish. White pelicans even steal food from adjacent nests in their nesting colonies that another parent has saved for its young. They also try to steal fish from double-crested cormorants as they bring their prey to the surface.
American white pelicans are almost entirely silent except for breeding encounters and chick embryos. During aggressive breeding encounters, they emit frequent low, short grunts. Chick embryos express discomfort before hatching by squawking if they become too cold or hot. The calls of white pelicans can be heard on The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s webpage.
Because American white pelicans are only in Florida during the winter, they must migrate back up north for breeding season in the late winter/early spring. The nesting period for white pelicans lasts 63-70 days from late March to early May. During this time, the pelicans form a season-long monogamous relationship. The incubation period takes 30 days and the average clutch size is two eggs.
For more information on the white pelicans’ breeding season, please visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) PDF document.
For More Information
For more information on the American white pelican, please visit The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s webpage.
This blog post was written by Natural Resources Extension Program Intern, Ms. Paxton Evans, under supervision by Natural Resources and Conservation Extension Agent, Mrs. Shannon Carnevale.
University of Florida IFAS Extension is committed to diversity of people, thought and opinion, to inclusiveness and to equal opportunity.
UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.