American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) below Marble Bluff Dam, lower Truckee River. Photo: K. Fitzgerald.
American White Pelican
- White feathers on body, neck and head.
- Black wing feathers visible when flying.
- Pinkish or yellow/orange bill.
- 9 foot wingspan (!)
Flying low over the water, American White Pelicans take on the appearance of something prehistoric, like ancient pterodactyls. Soaring high over the desert, groups of Pelicans look more like fleets of military aircraft, flying in lines or “V” formations and gliding and turning in unison. Up close, Pelicans are colorful and charismatic, with bright white body feathers and black wing-tips that are hidden except when flying. During the breeding season, their bills turn bright red-orange and females develop a raised plate on top of their upper bill. American White Pelicans are much larger than you might realize, with 9-foot wingspans and body-weight of up to 17 pounds (Sibley 2000).
Pyramid Lake’s Anaho Island is home to a permanent colony of White Pelicans — one of the largest breeding colonies in the United States. You can observe from afar, but don’t try to visit Anaho Island; it is closed to the public, and densely populated with rattlesnakes. Pelicans and other breeding birds normally arrive on Anaho Island in February or March, breed and raise young during spring and summer, and depart for wintering grounds during August or September (USFWS 2013). During migration, American White Pelicans pass over the Sierras from March-May and August-November, heading to and from California’s Central Valley (Beedy & Pandolfino 2013).
Pelicans will travel far from their colonies to feed, and can sometimes be seen upstream in the Truckee River Basin as far as Reno, Washoe Lake, Lake Tahoe, or other Sierra lakes and storage reservoirs (see eBird database). They also travel south and east toward the Lahontan Valley wetlands and Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge (Floyd et al. 2007). On lakes, White Pelicans hunt in groups, with flocks of 20 or more Pelicans splashing at the surface to herd fish into shallow areas where they can be captured and eaten (Beedy & Pandolfino 2013). Pyramid Lake’s pelicans feed primarily on Tui chub and Carp(Ryser 1985).
Pelicans nest on the ground, and breed in colonies on isolated islands such as Anaho Island, where they are safe from coyotes and ground predators (Ryser 1985). Females create nests in large depressions (~2 feet wide) on gravel or sand, and lay two eggs. Most of the time, only one chick survives: through a behavior known as siblicide, one chick harasses and kills the other. Parents feed the surviving chick, which remains in the nest for the first 2-3 weeks. Young birds leave the colony at 10 or 11 weeks old (Knopf & Evans 2004).
References & Links
Beedy, Edward C. and Pandolfino, Edward R. 2013. Birds of the Sierra Nevada. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Floyd, Ted; Elphic, Chris; Chisholm, Grant; Mack, Kevin; Elston, Robert; Ammon, Elisabeth; and John Boone. 2007. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Nevada. Reno: University of Nevada Press.
Knopf, Fritz L. and Roger M. Evans. 2004. American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Available at: http://0-bna.birds.cornell.edu.innopac.library.unr.edu/bna/species/057
Ryser, Fred A. 1985. Birds of the Great Basin. Reno: University of Nevada Press.
Sibley, David Allen. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf; New York.
USFWS. 2013. Seasons of Wildlife, Anaho Island. Website, updated Aug 2013. Available at: http://www.fws.gov/refuge/Anaho_Island/seasons_of_wildlife/index.html.