Our Wild Neighbors

American White Pelican

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

A fan of large freshwater bodies of water from Alberta to Ontario

Image of an American White Pelican, seen from a worm's-eye view, in full flight with wings spread and its head to the right.

Description of the animal

  • Very big bird. The American White Pelican is about 1.5 metres long, and its wingspan can reach 3 metres. The female is slightly smaller than the male.
  • Huge, the American White Pelican weighs between 6 and 7 kg, making it a heavyweight among birds capable of flying.
  • White plumage, except for its black wing tips.
  • Large bill and orangey yellow throat pouch.
  • Short, thick tail.
  • Short legs, feet completely webbed.

Habitat and needs

  • Eats all kinds of fish, but also makes do with crayfish, tadpoles, and salamanders.
  • Does not dive from the sky to catch its prey like other pelicans. It just scoops it up while paddling, using its pouch as a net. At times, the American White Pelican cooperates with other birds of its species to push fish towards less deep locations.
  • Makes its nest on the ground inland or on a virtually treeless island. Lives with others of its kind.
  • Incubates its eggs with its feet.
  • Almost always flies in a group in a “V” formation or single file. The Pelican beats its wings slowly following the group’s rhythm. It keeps its neck bent back over its body. Before diving towards water, it can soar very high in the sky.
  • Usually rears two young per nesting. The babies eat food regurgitated from their mother’s pouch.
  • Is a threatened species in Ontario, but not nationally.

Relationship

  • In the late 1800s, agricultural expansion destroyed many of the Pelican’s nesting sites and populations declined.
  • In the 1960s, DDT pesticide use caused its birth rate to plummet.
  • Before the American White Pelican was classified an “endangered species” in 1970, it was hunted to a great extent because it eats lots of fish.
  • The American White Pelican was removed from the list of animals threatened with extinction in 1985, but remains protected in Ontario.
  • The Pelican is vulnerable to variations in the water level of reservoirs: high water levels can cause its nest to become flooded and low levels can expose it to more predators.
  • Because it eats mostly fish, its droppings have high phosphate content and make good fertilizer.

Living with them

  • The Pelican can become insistent, especially pestering who fish at marinas. Feeding it makes it dependent.
  • Do not approach its nest unnecessarily; it needs calm and quiet.
  • In Ontario, the American White Pelican is protected by the Endangered Species Act, thus any illegal activity related to its habitat or population should be reported.

Participating cities where this animal has been seen