Wild Profile: Meet the white pelican

Published: April 21, 2020

A white pelican in flight By Michael Schober/Shutterstock

The white pelican? In cottage country? Well, sure—at least if your cottage country is the interior of B.C., east to northwestern Ontario.  Two of the big bird’s main Ontario breeding locations are Lake of the Woods and Lake Nipigon. By big, we mean huge (at least in the bird-verse). White pelicans weigh more than 15 lbs, and have a beak that’s more than double the length of a great blue heron’s. They also have a wingspan that stretches wider than an SUV.

Pelicans don’t move gracefully on land, thanks to that waddling walk, and, ahem, pot belly. And they look clumsy during take-off. But they’re built for the air; they have a slow, powerful wing stroke. Flocks fly in unison, in broad formations. They arrive in Ontario, ready to nest, when the ice breaks up in late April or early May.

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Pelicans use their huge, gaping maws to their advantage. They can scoop up 11 litres of water and fish at a time. They’re also very good at stealing fish, mid-swallow, from other shore birds. The lower part of a pelican’s beak is an expandable pouch. Pelican parents use it like a bowl, and, once they’ve swallowed their fill of fish stew, feed the regurgitated bits to their young. Yummy! Chicks need about 150 lbs of food from the time they’re born until they’re ready to fend for themselves. 

How does Ma or Pa Pelican gather enough nourishment to go around? Sometimes flocks “herd” fish—unusual in the avian world—by moving in a line or semi-circle, driving their prey into shallow water, where it’s easier feeding. The group of birds then attacks an entire school in a coordinated assault. Cooperation makes it happen, arewerite?

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