Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

American White Pelican

Charlie Warwick


. . Nothing else flies like that [White Pelicans], serene, untroubled, almost daring the air to throw them an updraft so that they can make a subtle, nearly invisible adjustment to their flight feathers and continue unperturbed. . . .
—Peter Cashwell, The Verb ‘To Bird’

 The American White Pelican (Pelcanus erythro-rhynchos), the huge, majestic flier described above is a member of the bird Order Pelecaniformes that contains six families, including Anhingas, Cormorants, Tropic Birds, Boobies, and Gannets. All birds in the Order are distinguised by having all four of their toes connected by webs, bills that are as long or longer than their heads, and expandable throat pouches for catching and holding prey.

American White Pelicans live on the coasts of the U.S. as well as lakes and rivers throughout the interior of the country. They are annual migrants in Illinois, usually arriving in the state in May and staying until September and October. Their atumn migration takes them to wintering grounds as far west as northern California and as far south as the island of Trinidad in the Caribbean. They are strong fliers who alternate flapping and gliding, and they can soar on thermals like hawks during migration at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. They migrate in “V” formation, often soaring to great heights. In Illinois, White Pelicans have been observed migrating in flocks that number in the hundreds to thousands.

Illinois American White Pelicans can be found along rivers and large inland lakes throughout the state. They seem to be more abundant in the western part of the state, especially along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers, but they have also been seen in the Chicago area, at Clinton Lake in east-central Illinois, at Carlyle Lake in southern Illinois, as well as at ponds and gravel pits. White pelicans may range up to 50 miles from their base when feeding.

These are large birds with bodies up to 5 feet in length, bills that reach 14 inches, wings that measure 22 inches from front to rear edges, and wing spans up to 9 feet. Their heads are white with distinctive throat pouches, the necks are long, and the wings are white with black tips. White Pelicans are a dramatic sight when making a low glide across the water. Writer Peter Cashwell, taking a bit of literary license with the large stature of White Pelicans, states, “If pelicans were drivers, they’d own huge, rectangular American luxury cars with plush interiors; they would get into the interstate’s passing lane at the first opportunity and would set the cruise control at eighty, then lean against the headrest, drape one wrist over the top of the steering wheel, and look out at the traffic under heavy-lidded eyes, waiting for their destination to roll up over the horizon.”

White Pelicans usually build their nests in a depression on the ground, although some have been known to use trees. The females lay one to five cream or blue-white eggs that measure three and a half by two and a third inches. The eggs incubate in 28–30 days. The young are cared for by both parents who feed them out of their pouches. The baby birds almost disappear inside their parent’s throat pouches as they feed on a diet almost exclusively of fish.

Unlike their close relative the Brown Pelican, which dives to catch prey, adult White Pelicans either wade in shallow water or swim and submerge their pouches to scoop up a meal. If they are swimming when they feed, they act like dabbling ducks, tipping their heads under water to secure food in their bills. Pelicans will often work as a group to corral fish.

Only a couple of decades ago, White Pelicans were in danger of extinction because formation of their egg shells was being ruined by the pesticide DDT, which was ingested in their food. Since the use of DDT and other environmentally dangerous chemicals has been banned, the numbers of White Pelicans in Illinois have rebounded and are now among the highest recorded for the state.

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