People usually associate pelicans with coastal areas, not Midwestern wetlands and lakes. However, for a brief period each fall and spring, the migration of these large birds provides a special wildlife viewing treat for people in this area.
This time of year is when flocks of American white pelicans, also known simply as white pelicans, can be seen making their fall migrations through this region on their way to wintering areas along the Gulf of Mexico. The American white pelican is the only species of pelican to migrate through the Midwest.
Brown pelicans are the other major pelican species in North America, but they reside along the Atlantic Coast. With a wing spans that can exceed nine feet in length, white pelicans are the largest bird to migrate through the Midwest and are also the largest of the eight “true” species of pelicans.
Pelicans are often thought of as ocean birds, but that’s not the case with American white pelicans. The birds seen in Missouri are migrating from inland locations further north and west. American white pelicans nest and rear their young in the Great Plains region of the northern United States and Canada.
Pelicans have a low tolerance for cold weather, which is one reason autumn weather sends them flying to points farther south. The birds’ feet and pouches often get frost-bitten in situations where they have been exposed to temperatures below 32 degrees F for 12 hours or more. September and early October is when peak numbers of pelicans are found in this area.
Pelicans migrate in flocks ranging from a dozen birds to more than a thousand. They travel along waterways consuming a variety of aquatic organisms. Pelicans are sometimes criticized by anglers for eating large amounts of sportfish. Studies have shown this accusation to be largely undeserved. A pelican’s diet primarily consists of minnows and coarse non-game fish, along with a sprinkling of crayfish and other aquatic creatures that happen to get scooped up.
Pelicans have several distinguishing characteristics, but their best-known feature is their pouch-like bills. A pelican’s pouch doesn’t have the holding capacity that has been portrayed in countless animated cartoons, but it can hold approximately three gallons of water. Primarily, a pelican’s pouch is a fishing tool. It’s used much like an angler’s net. The food (small fish and other aquatic creatures) is scooped up in the pouch and retained while the water is forced out between the closed upper and lower parts of the beak. The food is then taken down into the bird’s gullet with a backwards toss of the head.
Besides the largely false accusations about their diets, pelicans have been credited with another much more bizarre habit. Several ancient cultures revered pelicans because it was believed they ripped pieces of flesh from their bodies to feed their offspring. In truth, pelicans do no such thing. It’s thought this belief stemmed, in part, from the yellowish plumage (sometimes called “staining”) that appears on the breast of a pre-breeding adult pelican.
Also contributing to this false notion may have been the way pelicans feed their young. The adult drops its bill to its chest and the young thrust their heads into the bill and, in some cases, down the throat to get a regurgitated meal.
Stockton Lake is one area reservoir that seems to have a number of pelican sightings each fall, but they can be seen at other lakes and wetland areas, too. Catching a glimpse of migrating pelicans requires stealth and luck, but it can be done. Talk to local anglers, marina employees or wetland managers to learn where pelicans have been sighted recently or where they have been seen in past years. Migrating flocks often make overnight stops in coves or back-water areas.
The time immediately before sunrise is a good time to find a flock of pelicans at rest. White pelicans are easily spooked, so stealth is imperative. Bring binoculars and a camera.
More information about pelicans or other migratory birds coming through this area now can be found at your nearest Missouri Department of Conservation office or at missouriconservation.org.
Francis Skalicky is the media specialist for the Missouri Department of Conservation's Southwest Region. For more information about conservation issues, call (417) 895-6880.