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Hot on the Trail: American White Pelican

Posted on August 19, 2015

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Photo by Gerald Kornelsen

American White Pelican
Scientific name: Pelecanus erythrorhynchos



Pelicans are the longest native bird in North America; from beak tip to tail they can measure almost two metres! Pelicans also have the second longest wingspan next to the California condor. Their large size and their bright white plumage make them easy to spot from afar. They have giant, flat bills with a large throat pouch for catching fish. Immature pelicans have light grey plumage with a dark brown neck nape. Male and female birds look identical, but while female pelicans typically weigh an average of 10 pounds (4 kg), males tip the scale at an average of 13 pounds (6 kg).


Pelicans nest in groups of several hundred birds on remote islands in freshwater lakes. In Manitoba, the largest numbers of pelicans nest in the Interlake Region, and then fly south to California and the Gulf of Mexico in winter.

Pelicans are rarely hunted by larger animals, as they live in large colonies; however, red foxes and coyotes are their main predators. Some species of gulls have also been known to steal pelican eggs. If pelicans sense a threat, they will not abandon their nests, but instead will fight off the predator with their large beaks!

Food Sources

Pelicans typically eat fish, such as perch and carp, as well as crayfish and small amphibians. In the summer months, pelicans fish on shallow lakes, because warm water brings fish to the surface. Pelicans travel in groups of a dozen or more in search of food. The birds can work together to corral a school of fish, or forage alone and even steal food from other pelicans and gulls.

Watch the pelicans at FortWhyte hunting solo at the aerator bubbler in Lake Devonian, or swimming along shore in groups.


Pelicans arrive at their breeding grounds between early April and early June. During breeding season, both male and females grow a bump on the top of their beaks, which is shed once the pair has laid eggs. Females typically lay two to three eggs, but some produce as many as six.

Pelican chicks are naked upon birth and grow white down feathers before moulting to immature plumage. Chicks can crawl at one to two weeks old, walk and swim at three weeks, and fly at 9 to 10 weeks old.