Conservation Corner

Flight of American White Pelicans

By Dan Zarlenga, Missouri Department of Conservation

Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. Or maybe it’s a little of both.

The American white pelican is a BIG bird. With an immense body of over five feet long and a massive wingspan up to nine feet, pelicans are among the heaviest flying birds on the planet. You could maybe think of them as the B-52 Stratofortress’s of the bird world.

Well, they almost seem as big as a plane at least.

Believe it or not, we really do have pelicans in Missouri. They don’t nest here. But they do migrate through during spring and fall as they fly up to the Dakotas and Canada for the summer to breed, then pass back through again on their way down south. Pelicans spend the winter circling through the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Central America.

Their fall migration starts in August, making mid- and late-September a great time to see them here in the Show-Me-State as they make their pit stops and hang out to rest.

American white pelicans live up to their name, with striking white bodies accented with black wing tips. This seems to make the bright yellow of their huge bills stand out even more. The skin covering their legs also matches their bill in color. They typically fly with their heads pulled back on their body in a graceful “S” shape.

The best place to look for pelicans is among open waters such as rivers, large lakes, or in marshes. They’re often seen along the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers. This time of year, you might even catch impressive flocks clustering together along the banks. It’s an amazing sight . . . like a whole fleet of Stratofortress’s ready to take off for an epic battle!

They don’t really do much attacking though, except perhaps for fish. Pelicans hunt in shallow waters and along the river shoreline, dipping their heads under the surface to pull up fish in their unusual bills. The skin under their bills can stretch almost like rubber, creating a giant pouch which enables them to scoop up huge fish from the water. Pelicans have even been caught gobbling down massive Asian carp. It’s hard to believe they can do it until you see it for yourself. The birds also snack on crayfish, tadpoles, and other aquatic animals.

Pelicans do use one aircraft tactic; they can sometimes chase their prey in coordinated squadrons. A group of the giant birds will often form circles and hunt cooperatively, herding fish into a concentrated pack to create an aquatic buffet.

While the pelicans are in our area for a layover, why not check them out. Use a pair of binoculars, or a spotting scope if you have one, to get an even closer look. You might just agree that these feathered “B-52’s” really are the bomb! Visit mdc.mo.gov.