By Darcy Thomas

American White Pelican – photo courtesy of Gerrit Van

Early June last year in Dupuyer a man approached to ask about Glacier National Park as he was excited about driving over Going to the Sun Road from the east. I informed him the road was not yet fully open. As he expressed his disappointment I sighted three gigantic, gorgeous white birds with black on their wings soaring overhead. “Oh, pelicans!”, I exclaimed. “How beautiful!”. The birds were so close you could see the details of their massive orange horned bills, orange legs, and white plumage. They are so large their wings measure over nine feet from tip to tip. I wanted this man to feel the same enthusiasm as I felt at the sight of these magnificent birds. But he merely glanced at them. Maybe I shouldn’t expect others to feel the way I do.

“Pelicans in Montana?”, you ask. You saw pelicans on the coast. But those were brown, and these are white. How can pelicans be so far inland? But see them you do. There are eight pelican species – two of which live in North America. Brown Pelicans live along coastal waters and seas. The American White Pelican is found in freshwater into the interior of North America. In Montana you can find them during migration and in summer. They rarely winter inland, preferring coastal bays, inlets, estuaries, and sloughs during the cold months. The exception is the Salton Sea where they regularly winter over. 

American White Pelicans are often found together with Double-crested Cormorants as they forage together in shallow water, each taking different fish at different depths.  Pelicans cooperate when feeding by surrounding fish and corralling them into shallow water while dipping their bills and flapping their wings. A common misconception is that pelicans carry food in their bill pouches, but this is not the case. They simply dip their bills to scoop up fish into the pouch, raise their bills to drain water, and swallow. Another use of the bill pouch comes into play when these big birds become overheated. To cool off they face away from the sun and flutter their bill pouches to let body heat escape.

Pelicans are also good at stealing food from one another as well as from cormorants. They have even been seen stealing food from other pelicans in their nesting colonies when the other parent has disgorged food for its young. That’s not such a bad idea for a bird that must provide about 150 pounds of food to raise a chick until it can forage on its own.

Besides feeding together, American White Pelicans share the same nesting colonies with Double-crested Cormorants, Great Blue Herons, and California Gulls. In Montana these are found at Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Bowdoin National Wildlife Refuge, Arod Lake, and Canyon Ferry Reservoir. Pelicans can also be seen at other locations in Montana during migration, including Ninepipe Refuge, Freezout Lake, Red Rock Lakes, and along the Missouri River.

Look for American White Pelicans in Montana beginning in April when they arrive at their colonies to nest. They lay eggs – usually two – and incubate them from late April through May. Often only one chick survives as the other is harassed or killed by its nest mate. Before hatching, chicks inside the egg squawk to let their parents know they are too hot or cold! Both parents incubate the eggs by covering them with their webbed feet and will lift their feet off the eggs or cover them according to the clamor emanating from within the eggs. Young hatch in Late May and June and stay in the colonies until mid-August.

These pelicans are large and gregarious. They appear graceful in the sky as they soar in V-formations. On the ground they appear ungainly when walking, quite fast, but in an awkward, rolling way on their webbed feet. On water they prove to be strong swimmers.

As big as they are they still have predators from the sky and from the land, including foxes, coyotes, gulls, ravens, Great Horned Owls, and Bald Eagles. When predators from the sky are a danger pelicans fly aggressively before going into a near stall. To discourage predators on land they stand upright, grunt, and make threat displays by opening and closing their bills as they lunge forward jabbing with their bill. 

If you have yet to see an American White Pelican you may want to visit a likely hotspot this summer where you can add this bird to your life list. And, if you run across a tourist when you happen to see a pelican, point it out. Your tourist may just love seeing such a magnificent bird.

American White Pelican Range Map