Pelicans earn plenty of attention
Wherever they go, American white pelicans attract attention.
They are big, white, travel in flocks and seem strangely out of place in our inland lakes and rivers.
But they’re not out of place at all. And in recent years, more and more Illinoisans have been treated to the spectacle of pelicans circling overhead or herding fish in the shallows. Prime viewing areas are anywhere along the Illinois or Mississippi rivers, though birds have also been spending more time at inland lakes as well.
The big birds pass through Illinois each fall and spring in what seem to be ever-increasing numbers as they migrate from the northern U.S. and southern Canada to and from the Gulf of Mexico. The prime time to see pelicans in Illinois has passed, but we still receive reports and questions about the presence of these large birds, which can weigh up to 30 pounds and have wingspans reaching 110 inches.
Unlike brown pelicans, the white pelicans don’t dive after their food. Instead, they herd small fish and crustaceans toward shallow areas where they are easier to catch. And when they find schools of fish, word travels quickly. Here’s a quote from a recent Iowa Department of Natural Resources release by Lowell Washburn that summarizes pelican feeding habits nicely:
As birds organize into a circular rotation, they quickly begin herding fish toward the center [“donut hole“] of the flock. As the noose tightens, fish become densely concentrated and highly confused. The trap springs as each bird simultaneously begins scooping fish into the bottom of its huge pouch-shaped bill. The frenzy only lasts for a minute or two. Once it’s over, the birds laboriously rise, fly a short distance, and quickly regroup. The scenario is repeated over and over until the pelicans become gorged or the particular school they’re fishing is depleted.
If fish are found in shallow water, white pelicans may employ a U-shaped horseshoe formation and attempt to drive schools into shore or against other solid barriers. This tactic works particularly well with schools of baby bullheads which are one of the pelican’s favorite menu items.
So enjoy watching pelicans. And if you missed the spring migration, don’t fret. They’ll be back again this fall to stay for a few weeks once again.