American White Pelican

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
Range Map

The American White Pelican breeds on lakes throughout the northern prairies and the Intermountain West, but they spend winters in coastal areas. This bird is the only species of pelican to grow a “horn” on their upper bill. The odd-looking growth is a fibrous plate, which they shed after the breeding season.

While most of their kin breed north of about 40° latitude, there are perhaps four known populations that break with this tradition. One is in Durango (Mexico). A second is Tamaulipas (Mexico). A third is in Colorado. The fourth, perhaps the largest of these, is at Laguna Madre in Texas. These isolated populations are reported at 100-500 pairs.

These are one of the largest birds in North America. When I’ve seen these magnificent birds take off or land in formation on some inland lake, I’m reminded of a squadron of B29 bombers flying in formation. Watching them feed on the water’s surface in choreographed groups is especially entertaining, as they circle around schooling fish in an ever-tightening circle of birds, then simultaneously dipping their great bills into the water to catch their confused prey.

Taxonomists regard the American White Pelican as monotypic (i.e. there are no subspecies).


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