American White pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

American White pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

The American White pelican is an aquatic bird characterized for having a long beak with a sack that allows it to swallow prey and drain the water before ingesting it, they also have palmed feet, distinctive of the Pelecanus species. There are 8 known species of pelicans, two of which can be found in Mexico, the American White pelican, and the Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) (1). The white pelican is one of the biggest birds of North America, having a wingspan of around 2.7m (8.8 ft) at adult stage. The weight of these birds can vary from 4.5 to 9 kg (9.9 to 19.84 lb). The males tend to have a marginally bigger size than females.  The most obvious characteristics of this species are the white feathers, with a black variation on lower part of both wings, and the orange beak; these fascinating winged creatures have an agile flight despite their great size and weight.

In contrast to its relative, the Brown Pelican (Pelecanus Occidentalis), the American White pelican doesn’t dive into the water to catch its prey, but instead relies on collective fishing, where they lure their prey to shallower waters, to then catch them straight out of the water to swallow the whole prey, however they never save the prey on their sacks to feed (2, 4, 5). During the mating season they look for food at night, and find their prey by searching the water with their beaks for nearby fish, every adult pelican eats around 1.5 kg of food every day and the most common food source are fish like Carps, Sardines, and Perches (4). White pelicans usually feed, or even nest with the Double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus) although they hunt different fish species at different depths.

The American White pelican starts its reproductive cycle around the spring. The male pelican has a whole ritual to impress the female, where he extends his wings on an eccentric dance. After mating with the female, she deposits around 2 to 3 eggs in small holes made in the ground (3, 4, 6). Both parents take care of the incubation of their offspring, who hatch after around one month, sadly only 1 out of 3 offspring survive due to a phenomenon called cainism, this means that the strongest brother/sister kills the weaker ones to keep the attention and food provided by the parents.

American White Pelicans nest in big colonies that can reach hundreds of members in lakes and rivers in the south of Canada and in the USA.  During winter they fly to the south of California, (2,4,6) and to the east coast of Mexico and parts of central America; they also can be seen along water bodies in the  inland regions of the Mexican territory that they find along their migration route.

This species have a preference for calm waters or rivers and lakes with favorable temperatures and plenty of food, like in our local case of the San Pedro river, in the State of Chihuahua; where annually, these birds come to spend the winter, giving us a beautiful spectacle, that attracts many tourists to the region.

These birds are quite peaceful and prefer calm spaces without the interruption of others. It is common that the birds’ habitat is polluted(4,6) due to deterioration of the habitat or by noise pollution. The pelican’s habitat is also affected when the ecosystem of rivers and lakes is altered, and there is a change in the local fish population. Another great danger, not only for the pelicans, but also for any species within the ecosystem, is the bad quality of water due to contamination with trash or other residues.

As consequence, it is in our hands to take care of these ecosystems locally and globally. In order to be able to make noticeable changes, it is necessary to start in our immediate vicinity and then extend outwards. Even do the white pelican is not in immediate danger of extinction , it is necessary to take steps towards the long term conservation of this flagship species, in which the protection of both their resident and migratory habitat play a critical role. It is necessary to question the human role in the environment that we take so much pride for having, not only for the wellbeing of the other residents with whom we share the earth with, but also ourselves,

Author: Ángel Miguel Vélazquez Carrasco, collaborator


  1. Kennedy, M., Taylor, S.A., Nádvorník, P. & Spencer, H.G. (2013). The phylogenetic relationships of the extant pelicans inferred from DNA sequence data. Mol. Phylogenet. Evol., 66, pp 215-222.

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