American White Pelicans Thrive in Colorado


White pelicans have wingspan 9 feet across.

My son had his Eagle Project last weekend at Bear Creek Lake Park east of Morrison, creating a wetland to filter runoff from a new subdivision before it hits the flood-control reservoir.  Everything went wonderfully, and the wetland looks like it will work perfectly.
While we were there, we were treated to the sight of American White Pelicans as they left the reservoir to go fishing in other nearby bodies of water.  People who had never seen an American White Pelican were amazed.  I can’t blame them. The first time I saw one, I thought it was a glider going over. White pelicans are huge white birds, with black-edged wings that spread NINE FEET!
The big white birds fly in formation, wheeling and landing with precision that would

Pelicans fly in formation.

make the Air Force proud. On the water, they continue to work together cooperatively foraging by swimming in a line, then dipping their bills into the water at the same time to catch schooling “rough” or “trash”  fish.
If they can survive their first year – a big “if” as at least half of them die before they leave the nest – these birds have a potential life span of twenty years.  Once they are adults, their biggest threats are botulism from rotting vegetation at the edge of still ponds, hail, hitting wires or being shot for sport or because people assume they are eating commercially valuable fish.
American White Pelicans are relative newcomers to Colorado. The first arrived in the state in the 1960s, breeding here in summer before returning to the southern coasts for the winter. From three main breeding populations at Front Range reservoirs just a few years ago, pelican numbers have exploded. Today, any body of water of any size may have some of the big white birds doing their precision swimming routine.

About coloradogeography

Amy Law is a second-generation Coloradoan with a passion for her native state. This translated into a Master’s degree in Natural Resources from Colorado State University, and continues as a lifelong fascination with how people and nature interact. From family vacations in the station wagon to travel for work, she's covered the state, and everywhere she goes, she finds new things to see and ideas to explore.
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2 Responses to American White Pelicans Thrive in Colorado

  1. I live by Bodecker lake in Larimer county and the American white Pelicans are about 200 in number here on the lake. I just watched them fly very high and preform a beautiful show that I had to watch with binoculars. It looked like they would fly on to each others backs. I have lived here for 4 years and find them to be a beautiful bird and see the gracefulness that they preform as they fly in such large groups. How do they mate? is it while flying and and performing such high flying acts? Thank you

    • Wow, Sharon! 200! That must be a sight. I have never seen them in anywhere near such large groups.

      I haven’t seen the behavior of flying onto each others’ backs, either. The Birds of North America (BNA) website, maintained by Cornell University and the American Ornithological Union, describes this behavior: “Aerial Upright display … From normal gliding or flapping flight, head and body axis quickly raised as if in a stall, bill slightly below horizontal, with rapid and conspicuous ventral extension of pouch (they open their mouths). Given mainly by male, rarely by female, usually when coming close to others during courtship flights over colony and before landing. Probably a mild threat.” [https://birdsna.org/Species-Account/bna/species/amwpel/behavior] Does this sound like what you saw?

      In answer to your question about how they mate, I’m not an expert in this area, but I don’t know of any birds that mate on the wing. I think they are just too big to stay aloft while there attention is, um, otherwise engaged. BNA doesn’t say anything about aerial mating, and they certainly would if that was what was going on.

      Maybe I’ll have to get myself up to Bodecker Lake sometime and watch them, too.

      Happy birding!

      Amy

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