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You read that right, there are pelicans in Iowa! Hundreds of them spend their summers on Iowa wetlands, and large number nest on islands within the Mississippi River. While most people associate the fish-eating behemoth family and their unique beaks with coastal areas, American white pelicans are actually inland birds with main breeding grounds near the Great Lakes and southern Canada. Keep an eye out for them flying through this spring and summer - they’re pretty hard to miss!
If you’ve just started noticing pelicans or haven’t seen them yet, don’t worry – their populations are still growing. Like hawks, eagles and other predatory birds, pelican populations were decimated in the mid-1900s by chemicals like DDT accumulating in the environment, which then accumulated in the fish the pelicans ate, poisoning them. Now that those chemicals have been phased out, pelican populations are starting to recover and use more of their historical range.
Pelicans are social birds, both for breeding and eating. They nest together in colonies, with some of the largest reaching 5,000 pairs of pelican parents. They commonly nest with mixed groups of pelicans and double-crested cormorants on islands in shallow wetlands. Pelicans also fish together, and prefer to do so in large groups of a dozen or more birds. The pelicans flap their wings and dip their beaks in a semi-circle around a school of fish, directing them towards shallow water. Once there, the fish can’t dive down to get away and the pelicans can simply scoop them up. Other times pelicans have been observed to go bottoms-up like an oversized dabbling duck. This behavior differs significantly from that of coastal-dwelling brown pelicans, which dive entirely underwater after fish.
Contrary to popular belief (and Finding Nemo) pelicans don’t carry water or fish in their beak pouches while flying. Those pouches can hold up to five gallons of water, which at more than 45 pounds, is a struggle for the bird to lift, let alone fly with. However, that capacity helps the pelican catch lots of prey in one bite. Once their mouth is full, pelicans tip their heads back to let most of the water spill out the sides of their beak as the muscles of their pouch contract. Then, they swallow their catch head-first. Pelicans are also common food thieves, and will swipe a meal from a gull, egret, heron, or even another pelican, and their stealing is successful about a third of the time.
Pelicans of both sexes develop a bump in breeding season, and it’s not on their bellies. The lump forms on top of the bird’s beak, and falls off after the birds have mated and laid eggs. Its function is not entirely known, but is thought to be a display of fertility. Pelican breeding coloration is also fairly spectacular; the feet and bill turn vivid orange while the feathers are pearly white, save for a line of gray flight feathers on the underside of their wings. Outside of breeding season, pelicans of both sexes have a dark patch of feathers at the nape of their neck, their feet and bill are more yellow, and the beak protrusion is absent.
Although pelicans may lay as many as six eggs in a nest, usually only one chick survives. This may be partially due to the sheer amount of care each chick requires. Between the male and female, who both incubate the eggs and co-parent after they hatch, pelican parents must provide approximately 150 pounds of food to rear a single chick to adulthood. Pelican chicks in a nest with siblings may also die as a result of siblicide, where the chick that hatches first or grows fastest kills off its nestmates in order to secure more attention and resources for itself.
All in the Food Chain
While adult pelicans are too large for most Iowa predators to tackle, they do make the occasional meal for coyotes. Pelican eggs and chicks are much more popular, and subject to predation from eagles, owls, gulls, crows, foxes, and even other pelicans. For smaller predators like other birds, pelican parents fend off attacks by retaliating with sharp beak jabs, but if a large mammal approaches a nest, the parents often abandon it to ensure their own survival.
While it’s obvious pelicans are large, it can be difficult to compare them to other species at a glance. American White Pelicans stand about four feet tall, range from 10 to 30 pounds in weight, and on average are longer from beak to tail than trumpeter swans! Their 10-foot wingspan is only outdone by one other species nationally: the California condor.
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