The American White Pelican

The American White Pelicans have been migrating thru West-central Iowa for the past three weeks. These large birds have an awkward prehistoric look with their large bills and head. They are quite skilled at fishing by plunging their bill with a large pouch into the water, scooping up fish to eat. Upon catching prey, they tip their bill up, drain out the water, and swallow their meal.

White Pelican with a fish in its pouch. Canon 10D + 500mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter, ISO 100, f8, 1/800 ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved, 2004, Black Hawk Lake Wildlife Area, IA.

Pelicans are quite gregarious and can often be seen fishing in unison. Forming a semi-circle, they drive fish to shallow water and have a feeding frenzy.

White Pelicans driving a school of fish into shallow water in order to feed on them. Sony a9 + 100-400mm lens & 2x teleconverter @ 800 mm, ISO 640, f/11, 1/800. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved, 2018, Swan Lake State Park, IA.

The large webbed feet propel a pelican while swimming and are quite helpful for the water-skiing landing.

The large feet on a White Pelican allow the bird to water-ski, giving it a smoother landing. Sony a9 + 100-400mm lens & 2x teleconverter @ 800 mm, ISO 400, f/11, 1/1000. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved, 2018, Swan Lake State Park, IA.

Another use for the large webbed feet is to help propel the bird during take-off; running along the surface of the water to become airborne.

The White Pelican needs plenty of runway to become airborne. Canon 1D Mark IV + 600mm lens, ISO 400, f/6.3, 1/3200. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved, 2016, Swan Lake State Park, IA.

Sometimes, unexpected bird behavior can be witnessed while spending hours in a photo blind.

I suspect that this behavior may be a mating activity. Sony a9 + 100-400mm lens & 1.4x teleconverter @ 560 mm, ISO 400, f/8, 1/3200. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved, 2020, Black Hawk Lake Wildlife Area.

And yes, birds do poop in flight.

White Pelican defecating in flight. Sony a9 + 100-400mm lens & 2x teleconverter @ 590 mm, ISO 640, f/11, 1/1000. ©Stanley Buman. All Rights Reserved, 2018, Swan Lake State Park, IA.

Final Note: The big pouch on the bill is not used for carrying food, contrary to misconceptions, some of which are derived from cartoons.

12 thoughts on “The American White Pelican”

    1. I have been taking the social distancing seriously. As far as summer work, it looks like I will be spending it in Iowa. I look forward to the day when Covid-19 settles down and I can visit you again.

  1. Stan, yes there are areas where wildlife is far more abundant, but your photos are an example of how we can find wildlife anywhere, even in an area that is predominately filled with corn & beans. We just need to get out and observe.

  2. Carol Gronstal

    Wonderful pelican photos. Does the one who is grabbing the other’s neck have the “breeding bump” on his bill? Maybe he’s an over-excited youngster. I’m assuming it’s a male. I could be wrong about that.

    The cooperative fishing photo is also a great one.

  3. Great photos again Stan, for some reason this was in my junk mail??? So while cleaning some things up today, I found it. I love those pelicans, I used to take coffee to the lake and watch them. Thanks

    1. Sue, I am not sure why the messages are going to spam. To prevent that, you will have to add me to your “safe sender” list. We are lucky to have a place like Swan Lake and Black Hawk lake in the vicinity. Stay healthy.

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