By now, we should be fairly familiar with pelicans moving through the Arkansas River corridor in Arkansas. Still, sightings of “big white birds” generate considerable conversation and Internet postings.
Pelicans are not new in Arkansas, but their numbers have increased considerably since the McClellan-Kerr Navigation Project on the river was completed roughly 40 years ago.
Pelicans are some of the world’s largest birds. White pelicans are larger than brown pelicans which live year-round on the Gulf Coast. White pelicans can weigh as much as 30 pounds, stand 4 feet tall and have a wingspan of 9 feet. They are entirely white except for black-edged wings that are visible when the birds are in flight. Male and female pelicans look alike, and the average male is slightly larger than the average female.
Where do they come from? They nest and breed on lakes in the northern United States and southern Canada, mostly in the Rocky Mountain region. They winter in California, Mexico, and Central America, along the Gulf Coast and in Florida.
In recent times, thousands of pelicans have traveled along the Arkansas River, but smaller numbers are sighted most years along the Mississippi River and in southwestern Arkansas where they follow the Red River corridor.
Several hundred were on the upper end of Lake Conway in recent weeks. Most have moved on, but a few dozen are still on the lake.
Pelicans may be large, but they are graceful fliers, either singly, in flight formations, or soaring on thermals in flocks. The birds fly with their heads pulled back near their bodies. They may come in and out of view as they fly along. Look for them fishing in groups in reservoirs and big rivers.
Fish is their primary food. Sometimes they eat crustaceans, tadpoles and small turtles. The white pelican doesn’t dive into the water for its food like the brown pelican. White pelicans float on the water and scoop up fish and water in their pouches.
Remember that rhyme from childhood — “A wonderful bird the pelican. Its beak can hold more than its belly can.”
Pelicans hold their heads up and drain out the water and then swallow the fish. They often hunt for food in groups. They form a line and start swimming while flapping their wings and herding their prey towards the shore. Sometimes, one group of pelicans will even drive the prey towards another group of pelicans.
We get pelicans in Arkansas in their traveling seasons, not their breeding seasons.
In breeding season, the birds’ crests turn yellow and they grow an odd triangular plate on the upper part of their bill (nuptial tubercle). This falls off when mating season is over, and the crests then turn gray.
A few decades back, white pelican numbers declined, largely through loss of habitat and heavy use of toxic chemicals like DDT. This has changed, and the numbers of the birds appear stable or perhaps increased a little.
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.