Posted by: atowhee | August 22, 2013


This single White Pelican came soaring majestically overhead at Emigrant Lake yesterday. He doesn’t teeter in the air like the Turkey Vultures, nor turn tight circles like a Red-tail, or flap heavily like a Canada Goose. The only other local bird that match this pelican for seeming ease of flight is the Sandhill Crane with its elongated, cannon-barrel shape in the air. The White Pelican is at once strength and ease. The dense body and outsized beak might make you imagine it is awkward, barely able to lift off. But you only have to watch the white pelican or a small tornado of them together to be a bit jealous of the way they cut through the, the slow glide, the almost splashless and totally silent touchdown. The land only on water. When they are land they are loafing, usually within a few steps of open water.
Unlike the petite Brown Pelican, the White feeds in fresh water or quieter brackish estuaries. It trawls along the surface usually in a group. It does not dive beak-first like the oceanic Brown Pelicans.
This bird has the second longest wing-span of any American species, only the Condor is a couple inches greater. Both are around 9-feet, >105 inches. For comparison: Western Gull 58″, Red-tailed Hawk 49″, male Wild Turkey 64″, female Great Horned Owl 44″, Trumpeter Swan 80″, the locally abundant Tundra Swan 66″, Canada Goose, gold course sub-species 60″, Brown Pelican 79″, Great Blue Heron 72″, Bald Eagle 80″.
The black on the wing feathers is not just coloring, but a strengthening agent so the feathers wear more slowly. Thus many pale-winged birds have black wing-tips, makes the feathers last longer. When this bird is not flying the black feathers are rarely seen unless the bird stretches a wing after sleeping all afternoon in the sun.
The marvelous pouch on the under side of the beak is very sensitive to touch so these birds can actually fish in the dark. It also serves as a fluttering fan to help cool the bird on really hot days as the pouch is full of blood vessels.
They are colonial nesters. I tried to check on the large colony at Malheur but the NWR’s only biologist has retired and sequestration apparently prohibits his replacement. Will check to see if anybody has data.
Here in Jackson County there are often birds loafing at Howard Prairie Lake in summer, not brfeeding. We get migrants at Agate and Emigrant and Lost Creek Lake as well.

FOR CLARITY: the white pelicans here are of the species American White Pelican. In Greece and points south and east there is a similar species, the Great White Pelican which has wingspan of well over ten feet! I once met a tame one at the fishing pier in a town on Lesvos Island. This bird kept all the stray dogs off the pier which clearly was ruled by the pelican who walked back and forth on patrol duty, and occasionally went for a swim. That bird had a damaged wing couldn’t fly.


  1. Beautiful. Your photos have improved this summer.

  2. I read your whole w rite- up ; very interesting stuff – black makes stronger tips, only condor has greater wing span, sensitive pouc h thus can fish at night, etc.

    Question: Seems unu sual that a pelican is by himself. No?

    m a

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