Pelicans on the Mississippi
By Kate Crowley
Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!
His bill holds more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week.
But I’m darned if I know how the helican... Dixon Lanier Merritt
This limerick, while a bit of an exaggeration (pelicans eat about three pounds of food a day) is a good description of the surprising qualities of this very larger waterfowl. We observed and enjoyed seeing large numbers of pelicans last week as floated down the Mississippi River on a Paddlewheel. Many of them were seen in along the Upper Mississippi National Wildlife Refuge which begins at the confluence of the Chippewa River in Wisconsin and extends down to Rock Island, Illinois, covering just over 240,000 acres and extending 261 river miles. This Refuge was first established in 1924 to protect floodplain habitat necessary for the survival of fish, wildlife, plants and migratory birds.
White pelicans weigh more than 10 pounds and have such a large, flat and seemingly unwieldy bills that it is a wonder they can take to the air, but in fact they are graceful, and beautiful to behold in flight. Their large 9-foot wing span allows them to ride heat thermals on clear days, circling around and around with just an occasional flap of their broad white and black tipped wings. In flight they tuck their neck back against their body, and their bright orange feet and legs lie close to their tail. You will often see the fly in formation like Canada geese, forming long lines or V’s and when they all make a banking turn their white feather flash in the sunlight.
Facing threats due to pesticides and draining of wetlands, white pelican’s colonies have decreased overall in recent decades, but the good news is that in the last two decades they have been increasing in number, much of it on the Mississippi River. This change may in fact be due to the reduction of former nesting habitat and a good food supply in the river, but each year their population grows more than three percent.
While in the past only a few hundred used their river during migration, now the numbers are in the thousands. In the 1990’s some of the pelicans hung around the river sandbars throughout the summer months, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the first nesting colonies were seen on islands in Iowa. These were first on the Mississippi River since 1909. The colony produced 50 young and even though floods came through, the pelicans produced 200 young the following spring. By 2009 the number was up to 400 young and another colony appeared in Illinois. In 2010 the colony production doubled in size. It would seem that the pelicans have found the river and its islands a good place to replenish their numbers.
Everyone knows pelicans eat fish, but there is still some misunderstanding of how they do this. Pelicans do not use their great yellow/orange pouches to carry fish, rather they use it to scoop up water and fish together. Then they tip their heads up, let the water drain out and swallow what remains. This can include small fish like gizzard shad and emerald shiners and minnows as well as larger carp, buffalo and suckers. They will take salamanders, frogs, tadpoles, aquatic insects and crayfish. Basically, they will feed on whatever the water level provides, which unfortunately probably also includes a lot of garbage that gets carried into the river.
Nests are simply slight depressions in the sand, rimmed with sticks and other debris. Generally two eggs are laid and the adults incubate them with their feet, since they do not develop a brood patch on their bellies. The naked, orange/pinkish colored young hatch after about a month and the adults feed them slurry of semi-digested food. Overall, they will feed their young roughly 150 pounds of food from hatch to when they begin to feed on their own.
A word of warning. If you ever try to approach a young pelican on the nest, it will warn you away with a low grunting or croaking sound (the only sound pelicans make). If that doesn’t work, they will forcefully spit up the half-digested contents of their stomachs. To say it smells bad is an understatement.
As summer draws to a close the pelicans, along with all the other waterfowl as they begin their journey south. This is a good time to catch large concentrations on the river. They will continue south to the states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, where their slightly smaller relatives, the brown pelicans spend the entire year.