American White Pelican

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos

(c) Glen Tepke
  • Pelicans
  • Pelecaniformes
  • Pelicano Norteamericano
  • Pélican d’Amérique
One of North America's largest birds, the American White Pelican is distinctive for its nine-foot wingspan, conspicuous white body, and the improbable proportions of its large bill and pouch. Despite their size, the pelicans are graceful fliers, with flocks soaring high in the air and wheeling in unison. In flight, black wing tips and trailing edges are good field marks. American White Pelicans may be seen cooperatively foraging in shallow waters, or at adjacent loafing sites, where they are tolerant of human observation at a respectful distance.
(c) Shawn Carey
Appearance Description
American White Pelicans weigh about 16.4 pounds (7,500 grams), and measure over five feet in length, with a huge 9-foot wingspan. Sexes look similar, with short legs and tail; long, broad white wings with black tips and trailing edges; a large, heavy all-white body; and a huge pinkish to pale-orange bill and throat pouch. In breeding condition, they have a distinctive knob protruding upward from the upper mandible. Webbed feet make these pelicans strong swimmers.
Range Map
Courtesy Kenn Kaufman
Range Distribution
The American White Pelican resides mainly in western and southern portions of North America, breeding in colonies in inland scattered locations from western Manitoba and Minnesota westward to northern California. The birds winter along the warm southern coasts of California, Mexico, the Gulf Coast, and Florida.
A legend for the range map to the right can be found here.
In breeding season, American White Pelicans are found mostly inland, nesting on isolated islands in lakes, and feeding on shallow lakes, rivers, and marshes, which may be far from nesting sites. They also breed locally on coastal islands. The birds winter mainly along coasts, in shallow, protected bays and estuaries, and on large lakes in warm climates. Migrating flocks of pelicans rest on lakes and rivers along the way.
Favored foraging sites for American White Pelicans are shallow marshes, rivers, and lake edges. The birds obtain their food by swimming along the surface, dipping their bills into the water and scooping up prey in their expandable pouches. American White Pelicans are notable for their habit of cooperative foraging—coordinated flocks of swimming birds encircle fish or drive them into the shallows where they become concentrated and are more easily caught. The birds primarily eat fish of little value to humans, as well as salamanders and crayfish. During breeding season, the birds often forage at night, locating fish by touch.
Early spring migrants may arrive at colony sites before winter ice has fully receded. Courtship begins almost immediately, with aerial flights by dozens of birds circling prospective breeding sites. Pairs may strut with heads raised and bills down, bowing deeply with their wings slightly raised. Groups of newly paired birds form dense, synchronized nesting clusters. As more birds arrive, additional sub-colonies form on nearby portions of the colony, with different clusters commonly at different stages of the reproductive cycle. Ground nests, built by both parents, are usually located on bare soil or among grasses. Nests consist of a shallow depression, surrounded by a low rim of soil, stones, and plant material. The two dull white eggs are incubated by both parents, and hatch in about a month.
Newly hatched young depend on their parents for food, warmth, and protection. By about 3 weeks of age, they become more mobile, typically joining other chicks to form large overnight crèches for protection and warmth, while parents stay at the foraging grounds, returning to the colony to feed their young. Generally only the older chick survives; the younger is often killed by its sibling. However, in years of abundance, both may fledge. Chicks first fly at about 10 weeks, and leave the colony about a week later.
While some American White Pelican populations in Texas and Mexico are permanent residents, most are migratory, moving in flocks, by day. Northern plains breeders head south to coastal lowlands. Nonbreeders, particularly in Florida, may remain on their winter range through summer. Strays may wander widely.
CBC Graph
Graph Legend
Annual Population Indices
  • 180,000
  • less than 180,000
  • no current conservation concerns
Population Status Trends
The continental population of American White Pelicans declined throughout the first half of the 20th century. The species was considered threatened until the early 1960s, but has since made a substantial recovery. Christmas Bird Counts show increases, as do Breeding Bird Survey data, which indicate steadily and rapidly rising continental populations, which have increased at a rate of nearly four percent per year over the last 25 years. The most dramatic increases have taken place in Minnesota, North Dakota, and Wyoming.
An explanation of the Annual Population Indices graph displayed to the right can be found here.
Conservation Issues
The future of the American White Pelican was in jeopardy until the early 1960s, due to the combined effects of changing water levels, contaminants, and human disturbance--including shooting the birds for sport or to “protect” fishing. Since the 1960s, protective legislation, improved conservation efforts, and greater public awareness have all contributed to reversing population declines. However, protection remains inadequate in some areas. Shooting remains the greatest single source of mortality reported from band returns. Conflicts with catfish farms in the southeastern United States are a more recent concern.
Human disturbance and destruction of foraging and breeding habitat are primary limiting factors for pelicans. Especially during courtship and early incubation, American White Pelicans are highly sensitive to human intrusions into breeding colonies, which can cause nest desertion.
Censusing and research activities must take pelicans’ susceptibility to human disturbance into account. Protection of breeding colonies, continued vigilance for pesticide and mercury contamination, and protection of nesting and foraging habitat from permanent flooding or drainage are all recommended.
Where nesting habitat is limited, the creation of nesting islands made from soil or dredged material, located well offshore for protection from predators and humans, has been successful. Fencing to reduce coyote predation at selected sites has also proven effective.
What You Can Do
Join beach cleanups in your area. Properly discarding of debris, particularly plastic, will prevent pelicans and other waterbirds from eating it.
Don’t discard used oil into city sewers or municipal water supplies. It can end up in the ocean where pelicans rest and feed.
Dispose of monofilament lines, hooks, and fishing lures properly; pelicans can become entangled in this gear.
Don’t disturb nesting pelicans when hiking or boating; prevent dogs and children from disturbing them. American White Pelicans are very sensitive to disturbance at breeding colonies; they are prone to desert or to leave eggs and young exposed to predators if approached.
Make environmentally-friendly seafood choices, which helps protect fish that pelicans and other waterbirds depend upon. Learn more at or
For actions you can take, including Audubon activities, please visit our resources page.
More Information
 Visit our resources page for more information about this species.
Natural History References
Knopf, F. L. (2004). American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). The Birds of North America Online. (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved from The Birds of North American Online database:
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000
Conservation Status References
Knopf, F. L. (2004). American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). The Birds of North America Online. (A. Poole, Ed.) Ithaca: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved from The Birds of North American Online database:
Kaufman, Kenn. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York.
Sibley, David Allen. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 2000