A white pelican was sighted this past weekend on Long Lake in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. Long Lake, at the park’s West Beach unit, is a large body of open water at the western end of the band of wetlands that parallels the Lake Michigan shore in Indiana.
If you are not into birding, the association of pelicans and Indiana may come as a surprise. Even for birders, this is a notable event, something that does not happen every year.
But over the past 30 years, we have seen about a dozen of these big birds at various places around the southern end of Lake Michigan. Almost all of these sightings have come during the autumn migration period, either on the lake itself or on large inland lakes such as Long Lake, Lake Calumet, and McGinnis Slough.
One of these sightings was a bird that hung out at McGinnis Slough–which is in the Palos area–for several weeks. I managed to get out to see that one. Some kinds of birding require a subtle and practiced eye, but pelican spotting is not one of them. Bobbing buoyantly on the water, surrounded by ducks and gulls, a pelican stands out like a Clydesdale in a pasture full of Shetland ponies.
A full-grown white pelican can measure nearly six feet from tip of beak to tip of tail. It may weigh 15 pounds–a few giants have been reported at 30 pounds–and its wingspan of nine feet or more puts it in competition with the California condor for the title of largest bird in North America.
White pelicans are feathered in white everywhere except their wing tips, which are black. Three other large North American birds share that color scheme: snow geese, whooping cranes, and wood storks, but all of these fly with their necks extended. Pelicans fly with their necks curved back against their bodies.
We have two species of pelicans in North America. The brown pelican is the smaller of the two, with a wingspan of about seven feet. It is exclusively a saltwater bird, a bird of warm places like Florida and the Gulf coast, or the Pacific coast from California south. Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay is named for this bird, alcatraz being a Spanish name for the pelican. The brown pelican is also the state bird of Louisiana, a state where it was nearly wiped out by DDT and other persistent pesticides.
As a southern, saltwater bird of sedentary habits, the brown pelican is unlikely to appear anywhere around Chicago unless a hurricane blows a bird this far north. However, we do have four sight records, the oldest dating from 1904.
The white pelican is a freshwater bird, nesting on large inland lakes from the Dakotas to northern Manitoba and westward to Oregon and California. White pelicans spend the winter on the same warm coasts as their cousins. The birds we see here are migrants, passing through on their way south.
The one thing that everybody knows about pelicans is that they have huge beaks made even larger by a pouch of skin on the underside of their lower mandibles. This gular pouch inspired the famous limerick by Dixon Lanier Merritt, which goes: “A wonderful bird is the pelican. / His bill can hold more than his belican. / He holds in his beak / What he eats in a week. / I don’t see how the helican.”
White pelicans use this wonderful beak as a net. They scoop up a mouthful of fish and water and then let the water drain out the corners of their mouths, leaving dinner behind. Science, in its careful, methodical, slightly maniacal way, has established that a fully distended white pelican beak has a capacity of up to three gallons. This is in fact two to three times the capacity of the bird’s stomach, so Merritt’s rhyme is dead solid perfect on that point. However, a bird the size of a white pelican does eat up to 4 pounds of fish a day; so a pelican with 28 pounds of perch in its beak would fall on its face if it tried to fly.
Getting airborne can be tough on a 15-pound bird even if it is not hauling a load of fish. Without a wind to help it, a white pelican has to take off by running along the surface of the water, beating its wings furiously. But with a head wind, it can spring into the air with a single bound.
Once aloft, pelicans are masters of the air. They can effortlessly ride updrafts so high that observers on the ground lose sight of them. And they will come down from those heights in a vertiginous series of steep dives. During the dives, they hold their wings half-open, cocked at the precise angle to catch the wind in just the right way to create an enormous booming noise so powerful that humans within hearing start looking around for an approaching thunderstorm.
The thing I find charming is that they do this for fun. At a white pelican breeding colony (usually they are on islands), the adult birds spend mornings and evenings hunting for themselves and their young. But afternoons, when the rising thermal currents reach their daily peak, the adults take some time off. They spend most of it a thousand feet in the air.
This is not practical behavior. They are not hunting from up there as eagles and vultures do. Even a pelican couldn’t see a minnow from a quarter mile up. They are not even flying from one feeding ground to another. They seem to be hanging around in the sky for the sheer hell of it. Somehow it pleases me to know that a creature capable of soaring beyond sight also enjoys it and does it as often as possible.
Pelicans are almost exclusively fish eaters. White pelicans tend to go after minnow-sized prey. Brown pelicans, although they are the smaller birds, more often eat large fish. The difference may stem from differences in their hunting methods.
Brown pelicans are divers. Plummeting straight down from as much as 50 or 60 feet, they hit the water like a fat man doing a cannonball. They can more easily see big fish from on high, and their dives catch the fish by surprise.
Hunting white pelicans fly low, often just above the waves. It is very impressive to watch a flock go by. They move in perfect formation, often in a V. Their beaks rest on their curved necks. Their wings move in deep, measured beats, power apparent in each slow stroke. The whole performance has such dignity, like a procession of village elders passing by.
Pelicans are at home on the water too. They bob around like corks, thanks to a highly developed system of internal air sacs. They have pneumatic bones–nearly all birds do–and they also have air sacs just under their skins for even more buoyancy.
They swim quite well. Even unfledged young can achieve three miles an hour on the water. Like all members of the Order Pelicaniformes, they have totipalmate feet: all four of their toes are joined by webs. Ducks and gulls and other aquatic birds outside the Pelicaniformes have webs only between the three forward-facing toes.
White pelicans are a social bunch. Their nesting colonies may number several hundred birds, and they live in flocks during the rest of the year as well.
They even hunt cooperatively. When a flock discovers a shoal of small fish near shore, they will very quietly form a line between the fish and deep water. Once in position, apparently following a leader, they all start a furious racket, beating the water with their huge wings, driving the fish in panic toward the shallows where the birds can easily catch them.
Once a flock kept an old, blind bird alive by sharing with it the catch from these communal hunts.
A pelican carrying a meal back to the nesting colony–whether to feed young birds or old, blind birds–would swallow it first. Once at the nest, it would regurgitate the fish into its beak. The young get it from there, often practically climbing inside mom’s–or dad’s–mouth in their eagerness.
This sort of feeding behavior may have inspired the myth of the pelican in medieval bestiaries, where the bird was held up as the ultimate example of selfless motherhood. According to the myth, mother pelicans fed their children on their own heart’s blood; and that, not a mess of half-digested minnows, was what the babies were looking for when they crawled down mama’s throat.