American White Pelican

The pelican is a fish-eater, but what’s great about the pelican is that it eats fish that are of little commercial value, leaving the good-eating fish for us humans. And, the pelican is perfectly adapted for catching the 4 pounds of fish it needs each day. Its big pouched bill acts as a dip net that can scoop up 3 gallons of water along with whatever fish were caught. This bird doesn’t dive to catch fish, but scoops them up while swimming. The pelican then squeezes the water out the corners of its mouth and swallows the fish whole. Sometimes pelicans will hunt cooperatively, encircling fish, then herding them into shallow waters.

Although the white pelican is not endangered, there are some concerns about pesticide use and the thinning of the pelican’s eggshells. The greatest cause of mortality for a pelican is shooting—sometimes being mistaken for a snow goose and sometimes thought to compete for game fish contrary to evidence. Red fox and coyotes are natural predators.

American White Pelican

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

Distribution: Wetlands and marine coasts of North and Central America. Due to migratory behavior, they are found in central Canada, the central United States and the western United States in summer, and the southern United States and Central America in winter.

Diet in the Wild: Fish, but they will also eat aquatic amphibians and crayfish.

Diet at Caldwell Zoo: Smelt and capelin

IUCN Red List Status: Least concern; population increasing

Interesting Facts:

The American white pelican population has increased by 456% over the past 40 years.

American pelicans migrate twice each year, moving north in late winter and early spring to breeding grounds, and south in the fall.

American pelicans do not use their bill pouch to carry food. Any food collected is swallowed immediately. Newly hatched chicks receive partially digested fish that are regurgitated by their parents.

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