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Living Sanibel: The White Pelican

By Staff | Dec 12, 2012

The white pelican is one of the largest and heaviest birds found in Southwest Florida. Only the wild turkey, back from its own brush with extinction, is larger. That said, the white pelican has a much longer wingspan, measuring nine feet across for a mature bird. The white pelican is one of only seven pelican species worldwide; the only other pelican native to North America is the familiar brown pelican. There is one pelican species in South America, the Peruvian pelican, which is similar in appearance to the brown pelican but more than twice as large. Over the past 20 years the sightings of the white pelican throughout the region have increased dramatically. In the early 1990s it was found only on remote barrier islands and along oyster bars along the coastline. Today it can be seen regularly in Myakka River State Park, Rookery Bay, J.N. “Ding Darling and many other locations. A stunning bird to observe in flight, the white pelican has conspicuous black tips at the end of its wings and carries one of the largest bills in the world. (The Australian pelican, which is seven pounds heavier than the white pelican, has the largest bill of any bird species on earth.)

During the nesting season the white pelican develops a large, conspicuous plate on its upper bill. Its purpose is not entirely understood but is believed to be related to breeding displays. Unlike its brown cousin, the white pelican does not dive for its food. Instead it forms a communal group that herds its catch into shallow water or surrounds a school of minnows, then feeds on them by dipping its large bill into the water and scooping them up. Although it feeds on saltwater fish during the winter months, its primary diet consists of freshwater species such as perch, sunfish, suckers, and carp. As the white pelican’s numbers have rebounded, it has come increasingly in conflict with the growing aquaculture industry in the southeastern United States.

Because of its commanding size, the white pelican has few natural predators. Like many other birds, this pelican was severely impacted by the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides beginning in the 1940s until DDT was banned in the United States in 1972. The white pelican is still recovering from the effects. Despite being a protected species, it is still the target of hunters, its single largest cause of mortality. Many of the pelicans that are shot during the hunting season are cases of mistaken identity. When in flight, white pelicans often resemble snow geese and other legitimate migratory game birds.

This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast-A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.