Found throughout much of North America, American White Pelicans (Pelecaniformes: Pelecanidae: Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) are never far from water. They overwinter along oceans, lakes, and marshes from southern California through the Gulf of Mexico. Summers are spent breeding on inland lakes and marshes in central and western portions of the United States and Canada.
As one of the largest birds in North America these pelicans require a great deal of food. They feed predominantly on small fish, but they’re opportunistic hunters and will eat almost any aquatic species that is available. Other prey items include salamanders, tadpoles, and crayfish. They use their large bills to scoop up prey from the surface, tip their head back to drain the water, and swallow their food whole.
Mating pairs scrape together nests of mud, sand, and gravel about two feet (60 cm) across. Females typically lay two eggs, but it’s usually only the stronger and more aggressive chick that survives. The weaker chick is often killed or chased from the nest by the stronger chick.
Historically American White Pelican populations were threatened because they were often shot for fun or because it was thought they competed for commercially-valuable fish. Although their populations have increased somewhat over the last few decades, these magnificent birds still face some challenges. They’re particularly sensitive to human disturbances and are quick to abandon nests when they feel threatened. They’re also often still shot by people who believe they compete for commercial fish. Over the last few years in particular they’ve experienced an increase in mortality from catfish farmers in the Mississippi River delta.