White Pelican

Common Name: White Pelican
Class: Aves
Order: Pelecaniformes
Family: Pelecanidae
Genus: Pelecanus
Species: Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
American White Pelican Taxonomy/Description

photo M. Noonan

The white pelican belongs to the family, Pelecanidae, in the Avian Order Pelecaniformes. Other members of Pelecanidae, include. Its scientific name is Pelecanus erythrorhynchos means "pelican with a red beak", referring to this pelican's large, red beak pouch.

American White Pelican Habitat/Diet

The American white pelican's primary range extends throughout the North American West. Large lakes and ponds of the American prairies provide ideal nesting and feeding grounds during the warmer months of the year. White pelican's migrate to more southern latitudes during the fall and winter months, some as far south as Panama. Those living in more western regions migrate to southern California, while those living more east migrate to the Gulf of Mexico.

White pelican's feed on a variety of different aquatic animals. A group of researchers in North Dakota has found that local white pelican's feed primarily on minnows, sticklebacks, black bullheads, carp, and larval tiger salamanders.

American White Pelican Behavior/Reproduction

The American white pelican captures fish quite differently from its cousin, the brown pelican. The brown pelican's feeding method is characterized first by flying close to the water's surface. Once potential prey has been spotted, the pelican veers upward to gain altitude, diving headfirst into the water. It's unsuspecting prey is then gulped into the pelican's flexible beak pouch. White pelicans hunt as a team. This species floats on the water's surface, forming a wide line of about a dozen birds. The pelicans flap their wings and bills to scare prey towards the shore. It is not unusual for the initial line of pelicans to separate into smaller groups, driving prey towards other groups. Once the prey is cornered, the pelicans vigorously sift through the water with their open bills.

photo M. Noonan

The large birds in the background are American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). The smaller, darker birds in the foreground are brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis), a close relative of the the American white pelican.

White pelican breeding grounds include the northern plain states of the U.S. and the southern prairie provinces of Canada. Isolated breeding colonies are also located in southern California.

American White Pelican Conservation

Fishing hooks and lures have been discovered in food regurgitated by pelicans. This indicates that fish weakened by fishermen are often preyed upon by pelicans. These foreign objects are hazardous to the digestive tracts of the white pelican.

Content provided by Canisius College students under the direction of Michael Noonan, PhD.