White pelicans fishing in Florida

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. Although some migratory birds 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.

Identification

American white pelicans in flight.

American white pelicans in flight. Unsplash photo by Gareth Davies

American white pelicans are large water birds with broad wings and long necks.Their bodies are thick with short, square tails. They also have very large bills and short legs that are yellow-orange in color.

American white pelicans, as their name suggests, are mostly white- except for their black flight feathers, which are only visible when their wings are spread. They fly in large flocks at high altitudes in a V formation.

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 coastlines. Despite migratory maps, populations of white pelicans have been reported near lakes throughout Polk County.

Along the coast, American white pelicans reside mainly in coastal waters, bays, and estuaries. Despite this, in Central Florida, white pelicans live in wetland habitats such as:

  • marshes
  • lakes
  • rivers

American white pelicans often reside near double-crested cormorants. Although they hunt mostly 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. 

Diet and Behavior

White pelicans fishing in Winter Haven, with double-crested cormorants in the background.

White pelicans fishing in Winter Haven. Photo by Shannon Carnevale

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:

  • minnows
  • panfish
  • sluggish bottom feeders
  • salamanders
  • tadpoles
  • crayfish

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.

Reproduction:

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.

Sources:

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.

3 Comments on “American White Pelicans: Florida’s Other Snowbird

  1. Hello! Tere is One white pelican that was left behind her flock . Can you tell me ir there is somethig that we can do ?
    She is in a pond in a park in San Luis Potosí México.

    • Good morning, Maria,
      Thank you for writing all the way from Mexico! White Pelicans are migratory, for the most part, but they do occasionally take up year-round residence in the warmer part of their annual territory. The flocks that do not head back north are known as “resident” populations, or in other words, they live in the given area year-round. For instance, in the state of Durango, Mexico, there is a breeding, year-round population of white pelicans.
      It’s possible that over time, the lone white pelican you’re seeing may join their ranks. Alternatively, when the majority of white pelicans fly south for winter, the lone pelican may join one of those populations.
      For specifics on your local white pelican populations and their “normal” migration patterns and behavior, I recommend reaching out to a local wildlife biologist or ecologist. Or, try contacting a wildlife specialist at a local zoo or conservation organization. They will know better what is normal for white pelicans in Mexico, than I.

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