Summit Outside: White pelicans of Colorado

Dr. Joanne Stolen
Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily

“Behold the mighty pelican. His beak holds more than his belican. I don’t know how the helican.” Dixon Lanier Merritt (1879-1972)

On Antero Reservoir just south of Fairplay, it is a common sight to see fishermen and pelicans coexisting peacefully, side by side.

There are breeding colonies of American white pelicans on Antero Reservoir and literally hundreds of them can be seen in the spring on the north shore and on an island.

You can only view them by boat as there is no road access on that shore, but from the north and south boat ramps you can see a few hanging out or gracefully soaring overhead.

We see them regularly on Dillon Reservoir but they are transients and not a breeding population.

The name pelican is derived from the Greek meaning “axe” and applied to birds that cut wood with their bills or beaks.

The American white pelican that can be seen in Colorado are very large birds, 50-70 inches long, and can weigh up to 30 pounds. They are snow-white, with black wing tips.

Pelicans are adept swimmers, with their short, strong legs and orange feet that are webbed. They are webbed not only between the four front toes and between the second toe, but also between the inwardly-directed back toe.

Pelicans rub the backs of their heads on their preen glands to pick up oily secretion and they transfer this oil to their plumage to waterproof it.

Despite their large size, they can sit high on the water because they are very buoyant. Their bones are full of air and they have large air sacs in their body.

They have huge flat bills, with a large yellowish-orange pouch of stretchable skin that connects the lower mandible of the beak which can stretch up to six inches.

The diet of a pelican usually consists of fish, but they also eat amphibians, crustaceans and have been seen to eat smaller birds.

Pelicans can hold as much as three gallons of water in their bill. When they scoop up the fish they tilt their heads back, draining out the water, then swallow the fish. They can strain about four pounds of fish, each day.

White pelicans often fish in groups, forming a line to chase schools of small fish into shallow water and then scoop them up. Large fish are caught with the bill-tip, tossed up in the air to be caught and slid into the gullet head first.

The wings span can be as large as nine feet, and have as many as 30-35 secondary flight feathers.

A layer of special fibers deep in the breast muscles can hold the wings rigidly horizontal for gliding and soaring. They use thermals to fly many miles to feeding areas.

Pelicans fly in evenly spaced lines or “V” formations often with their bodies motionless as they glide in unison. If the lead bird begins to flap its wings, each bird seems to take its cue from the one in front of it, beginning to flap or starting a glide when its predecessor does. The rhythmic pattern of wing beats flows like a ripple effect to the end of the V.

They ride rising air currents to great heights, where they soar slowly, and gracefully circle downward onto the water.

Pelicans fly with their necks doubled back, head tucked against their shoulders, making them very streamline.

Pelicans congregate in large, dense colonies when raising their young.

Both sexes prominently display their bright orange bills during the courtship ritual.

A very distinct and a unique characteristic of the male white pelicans in breeding season is the fibrous bump on the upper part of the beak.

The white pelicans have a complex, communal courtship involving a group of males chasing a single female in the air, on land or in the water while pointing, gaping and thrusting their bills at each other.

Pairs that finally form are monogamous for a single season.

They build a nest by making a shallow depression on the bare ground and rim the nest with gravel, soil or plants. They lay two to three large, chalky-white eggs and both parents incubate the eggs on top of, or below their feet in shifts.

When the chicks first hatch, they are blind and bald, but in 10 days they will be covered in thick white down.

The “first hatched” of the chicks competes with the younger one for food, and often the younger chick dies.

Both parents help in feeding the young. The young stick their heads into the parents’ beak to feed on regurgitated food.

Parents have the strange behavior of sometimes dragging older young around by the head before feeding them.

The young stay in the nest for two to three weeks and then join other young in a “pod” until they are able to fly. They gather in “pods” or “creches” of up to 100 birds and parents recognize and feed only their own offspring.

By six to eight weeks the young wander around, occasionally swimming, and may practice communal feeding. Adults rarely make but an occasional grunt, but young pelicans are very vocal and squeal.

Pelicans have a life span of about 12-14 years.

In late August or early September, before the freeze-up, they migrate mainly to the Gulf of Mexico coast for the winter and return the following spring to Colorado to nest.

American white pelicans are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Human activity is the biggest threat to the pelican. Changing water levels due to irrigation and recreational use, disturbance of breeding sites by boaters and fishermen, or industrial activity may cause the birds to abandon an entire nesting colony leaving eggs and young chicks exposed to harsh weather and predators.

Pelicans have been around for over 30 million years, the earliest fossil pelecanus was found in Oligocene deposits in France.

The people of ancient Peru often depicted the pelican in their art. Groups of pelicans have been called a “squadron,” “brief,” “pod,” “pouch,” “scoop” or “gang.”

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University, and has taught classes at CMC. She is now pursuing a career in art, specializing in nature and many of the animals she writes about. Her work can be seen locally.

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