[Published in 1922: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 121: 282-293]
The day we reached Big Stick Lake, after a 30-mile drive over the rolling plains of Saskatchewan, was cold and blustering; the lake looked forbidding enough, for its muddy waters were covered with white caps and heavy breakers were rolling in on the pebbly beach before a strong northerly gale; but we could not resist the temptation to visit a small island, which lay less than 200 yards offshore, and over which a cloud of white gulls were hovering. The chief attraction was a great white mass of birds standing on one end of the island, conspicuous as a snow bank in spring, but recognized at once as a flock of pelicans. I had never seen a breeding colony of white pelicans and, as our driver assured us that the water was shallow enough to drive to the island, we decided to attempt it. Our horses plunged bravely on through the rough water, which nearly flooded the wagon, the flying spray drenched us to the skin and nearly took our breath away as it was blown into our faces by the gale; but we arrived safely at the end of our short drive none the worse for our chilly shower bath, and we were well repaid for our trouble. Clouds of California and ring-billed gulls were rising from the little island and beating the air above it in a bewildering maze; numerous ducks flew from the grassy knolls and a lot of yelping avocets added their cries to the constant chorus of gulls' voices. But the pelicans stood silent and dignified until they decided to leave and then, as if by one common impulse, they all rose at once with a great flapping of long black-tipped wings; they seemed heavy, awkward, and ungainly at first, but they soon gained headway and showed their marvelous mastery of the air, as they swung into line forming one large V-shaped flock; they circled around the island two or three times, with slow and dignified wing beats in military precision, or all scaled in unison like well-drilled soldiers; and finally, when satisfied that they must leave and when fully arranged in proper marching order, they all followed their leader and departed northward over the lake; the last we saw of them they were flying in a long straight line, just above the horizon, their black-tipped wings keeping perfect step and their snowy plumage showing clearly cut against the cold gray sky even when miles away. It was a fascinating spectacle to stand and gaze at that departing flock of magnificent birds and to dream of nature's wonders, the marvels of creation, which only those may see who seek the solitudes of remote wilderness lakes.
We were doomed to disappointment, however, for not a pelican's nest was to be found on the island; we felt sure that they would have eggs at this late date, June 14; possibly they had been disturbed; but more likely they were merely wandering about in flocks, as we had seen them elsewhere. Later in the season, on July 18, 1906, Doctor Bishop and Doctor Dwight visited this island again and found a small breeding colony of white pelicans with a few double-crested cormorants; there were ten nests of the pelicans with two eggs each, and four with only one each, surrounded by a thickly populated colony of California and ring-billed gulls. The pelicans' nests were made of sticks and feathers. Doctor Chapman visited this island on June 10, 1907, and found a great colony of 3,000 pelicans nesting there; the young were just appearing at that date, showing that they were unusually late in nesting the previous season.
Nesting.--The first breeding colonies of white pelicans that I found were in Lake Winnipegosis, Manitoba, where they were nesting on small islands with double-crested cormorants, ring-billed gulls, and common terns. The largest of these was examined on June 19, 1913.
A long white reef was seen in the distance, which, as we drew near, seemed to be covered with birds; the mass of loose boulders which formed its foundation, and was prolonged into a point at one end, was black with nesting cormorants; a fine stony or pebbly beach formed a point at the other end, over which a cloud of screaming terns were hovering, and in the center, where the soil had accumulated to a considerable height, we could see the great, white solemn forms of numerous pelicans sitting on their nests, or standing beside them. While making a landing in our canoe the scene suddenly changed to one of action, as the cormorants began pouring off their nests and our over the water, and the pelicans rose with one accord; not a single bird was left on the island, but the whole great regiment formed in one vast flock and circled around the island again and again in a dense, black cloud, with nearly a hundred of the great white birds in the center; it was a magnificent sight not soon to be forgotten. They swung close over our heads several times within easy gunshot, and my boatman could not resist the temptation to send two of the large, beautiful creatures tumbling into the water with a mighty splash. Although ungainly in form and massive in size, weighing from 15 to 20 pounds and stretching from 8 to 10 feet in alar expanse, the white pelican is really a glorious bird, the spotless purity of its snow-white plumage offset by its glossy black wing feathers and enriched by its deep orange bill and feet.
On landing we found that the common terns were nesting in a densely populated colony of from 500 to 800 pairs on the gravelly beach at the eastern end, and the double-crested cormorants, about 300 or 400 pairs of them, were occupying the bare ground and the rocky point at the western end. On the high bare ground in the center we counted 46 nests of white pelicans, mere depressions in the bare earth, with usually a more or less complete rim of dirt and rubbish raised around the eggs. The usual number of eggs was two, but three or four nests contained three eggs each and one held six, probably laid by two or perhaps three birds; some nests held only one egg, and there were a few single eggs lying around on the ground or under the rocks. We saw one pelican's egg in a cormorant's nest with four eggs of the latter. The nests of the two species were often close together, showing that they are friendly neighbors.
Dr. Joseph Grinnell (1908) visited Echo Island in Salton Sea on April 20, 1908, where he found an interesting breeding colony of some 2,000 white pelicans, the most southern colony recorded at that time. He gives the following accurate description of the nests:
The nests varied greatly in size and composition, according to location. A nest on the drift line just at highest water mark was a tall, steep-sided affair, like the pictures I have seen of flamingos' nests. Appropriate material was plentiful, consisting of sections of plant stems, chips, and chunks of pumice. Planks and railroad ties sometimes interfered with the symmetry of the nests. The finer material had evidently been heaped up by the bird as she sat on the nest, for the nests were often surrounded by radiating spoke-like grooves, plainly bill marks. The material is thus pulled towards the sitter, but not from a farther distance than 828 mm. from the center, beyond which the bird is evidently not able to reach. The spacing of the nests in the colony, quite regular in places, seems to be dependent on the reach and conflicting interests of the inhabitants. The sets of eggs were never closer together than 828 mm., usually 1,380 mm. apart. The ground between the nests was usually absolutely clear of even the finer fragments, these having been scraped up onto the walls of the nests. On the hill slopes the nests were more scanty, for material was scarce. Some were made wholly of angular pumice or dried mud fragments, some of brush stems, and some of just soft earth. But their diameter was an almost constant quantity, between 414 and 532 mm. The depression was 46 to 69 mm. deep, so that there was nearly always a well-defined rim to the nest. The higher nests, those in the drift, were mounds as much as 276 mm. tall.
In the Klamath Lake region of southern Oregon, now a reservation, the white pelicans nest in very different situations. Mr. William L. Finley (1907) has thus described their nesting sites:
Extending for several miles out from the main shore was a seemingly endless area of floating tule islands, between which flowed a network of channels. These islands furnished good homes for the great flocks of pelicans that return each spring to live about these lakes and rivers that teem with fish. The tules had grown up for generations. The heavy growth of each year shoots up through the dead stalks of the preceding season till it forms a fairly good floating foundation. On top of this the pelicans had perched and trodden down the tules till they formed a surface often strong enough to support a man. But it was like walking on the crust of the snow, for you never knew just when it would break through. However, these treacherous islands were the only camping places we had during the two weeks we cruised the Lower Klamath. We rowed on among these islands and found the pelican colonies scattered along for about two miles. There were eight or ten big rookeries, each containing from four to six hundred birds. Besides, there were about fifteen others that had all the way from fifty to two hundred birds. The birds nested a few feet apart on these dry beds, laying from one to three eggs.
Eggs.--The white pelican raises only one brood in a season and normally lays two eggs, sometimes only one and occasionally three. Some of the earlier writers say that this bird lays from three to four eggs, but I think such large sets are exceptional. I have found as many as six eggs in a nest, but I believe these were laid by two or three birds. The eggs vary in shape from "ovate" to "elongate ovate," and some are nearly "elliptical oval." The shell is thin, soft, and brittle, lusterless and rough on the exterior, with generally more or less calcerous deposit, which cracks or flakes off irregularly. The original color is dull white, but the eggs are usually more or less blood stained and sometimes are heavily smeared or streaked with it; they soon become very much nest-stained and dirty, so that they are far from attractive in appearance.
The measurements of 62 eggs in the United States National Museum collection average 90 by 56.5 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 103 by 54, 81.5 by 62, 62.5 by 45, and 85.5 by 34 millimeters.
Young.--Both sexes share the duties of incubation, which lasts for about a month. Major Bendire (1882) recorded the period of incubation as 29 days for eggs hatched under a domestic hen. The young when first hatched are naked, blind, and helpless, of a livid flesh color, and most unattractive in appearance. They remain in the nests for two or three weeks and are fed by their parents on regurgitated food. Mr. Finley (1907) says of this process:
The parent regurgitated a fishy soup into the front end of its pouch and the baby pelican pitched right in and helped himself out of this family dish. As the young bird grew older and larger, at each meal time he kept reaching farther into the big pouch of his parent until finally, when he was half grown, it was a remarkable sight. The mother opened her mouth and the whole head and neck of her nestling disappeared down her capacious maw while he hunted for his dinner in the internal regions.
When one-third or half grown the young pelicans are strong enough to leave the nests and wander about their island home in droves. They also learn to swim while still in the downy stage and when less than half grown. The feeding process during this active stage is most interesting and strenuous. Mr. Finley (1907) has well described it as follows:
Just then another mother dropped into the nursery and she was besieged by several ravenous children. Each began pecking at her bill, trying to make her feed them. But she moved off in apparent unconcern, or perhaps she was making some selection as to which one to feed. She waddled about till one of the youngsters began a series of actions that were very interesting. He fell on the ground before the old bird, grunting and flapping his wings as if he were in the last stages of starvation. Still the mother did not heed his entreaties and the youngster suddenly got well and began pecking her bill again. The old bird backed up as if she were getting a good footing and slowly opened her mouth to admit the bill of the little pelican. She drew her neck up till the ends of the upper and lower mandibles were braced against the ground and her pouch was distended to the limit. Jonah-like, down the mother's throat went the head of the child till he seemed about to be swallowed had it not been for his fluttering wings. He remained buried in the depths for about two minutes, eating everything he could find. Nor did he withdraw from the family cupboard voluntarily, but when the supply was exhausted or the mother thought he had enough she began slowly to rise and struggle to regain her upright position. The youngster was loath to come out and, flapping his wings, he tried in every way to hold on as she began shaking back and forth. The mother shook around over 10 or 12 feet of ground till she literally swung the young bird off his feet and sent him sprawling over the dry tules.
Rev. S. H. Goodwin (1904) has published the following interesting account of the behavior of young white pelicans:
Young pelicans must certainly be given a prominent place in the front rank of the ridiculous and grotesque in bird life. Their excessively fat, squabby bodies, the under parts of which are bare, while the upper parts are covered with a wool-like coating, hardly distinguishable from that on the back of a four weeks' old lamb; these bodies set on a pair of legs, of the use of which the youngsters seem to have no clear notion, so that when they undertake to move about they wobble and teeter and balance themselves with their short unfledged wings, often tumbling over; many of them (on this occasion) with their mandibles parted, and panting like a dog after a long run on a hot day, the pouch hanging limp and flabby, like an empty sack, shaken by every breath--form, appearance, movement, all combined to make these birds absurdly ridiculous.
When we approached these birds, those nearest the water would not move an inch, while those nearest us in their frantic endeavor to get away would try to climb up and over the struggling, squirming mass in front of them, sometimes succeeding, but oftener rolling back to the ground where, not infrequently they alighted upon their backs, and lay helplessly beating their wings and kicking their feet in the air--after the fashion of some huge beetle--till they were helped to right themselves. When left to themselves, not a few of these birds would "sit down," just as a dog sits on his haunches, the wings sometimes hanging limp at the sides, at others folded back. The larger part of them, however, simply squatted in the usual manner. They made no sound save when we attempted to drive them, when an occasional puppy-like grunt would be heard, as if some hapless youngster had fallen or been trodden upon.
As the young pelicans increase in size they are fed more and more on solid food which consists wholly of fish. Mr. John F. Ferry (1910) says of the food of the young "Sometimes they disgorged the contents of their pouches, usually a mass of salamanders (Necturus maculatus), though occasionally a 'jock-fish' (one of them was about a foot long), and sometimes sticklebacks (Eucolia inconstans)." As is generally the case with the larger birds, pelicans are not at all solicitous for the welfare of their eggs or young; they seem to think only of their own safety. If pelicans and eagles were half as aggressive as hummingbirds or thrushes, collecting their eggs would be a hazardous undertaking; but fortunately for the collectors and for predatory gulls the white pelicans promptly depart and leave their nests to be despoiled.
Plumages.--From the naked stage of nativity the young pelican develops rapidly in size and soon begins to acquire its downy covering. A young bird in my collection, with a body about the size of a mallard and a head as large as a swan, has the head and neck practically naked, the down only just starting, and the body thickly covered with soft, dense fleece-like down which is pure white. This bird was probably two or three weeks old. The soft woolly down increases until the young bird is completely covered; the flight feathers develop rapidly and the bird attains its full size before the body plumage appears. The first winter plumage is acquired in the fall when the young birds closely resemble the adults. Young birds may be distinguished from adults in the spring by the absence of the special adornments of the nuptial season, the heads and breasts are pure white and the bills and feet are duller colored. At the first postnuptial molt old and young become practically indistinguishable, except that the highest development of maturity is not reached until the third or fourth year. In adults the prenuptial molt is incomplete, producing in highly plumaged birds, the pale yellow crest and breast plumes, the brilliant orange bill and feet and the horny protuberance on the bill, which is common to both sexes. The horn is shed soon after the eggs are laid and the occipital crest is soon replaced by a mottled gray cap. I believe that only a few of the oldest and most highly developed birds have well-marked yellow crests and plumes; the greater number of breeding birds have the gray caps, which are lost at the end of the breeding season, or at the following postnuptial molt.
Food.--The white pelican does not dive for its food like the brown pelican, but catches it on or near the surface by swimming or wading in shallow water. The process has been well described by several writers, but the following account by Mr. N. S. Gross (1888) seems to give the best idea of it:
I have often noticed the birds in flocks, in pairs, or alone, swimming on the water with partially opened wings, and head drawn down and back, the bill just clearing the water, ready to strike and gobble up the prey within their reach; when so fishing, if they ran into a shoal of minnows, they would stretch out their necks, drop their heads upon the water, and with open mouths and extended pouches scoop up the tiny fry. Their favorite time for fishing on the seashore is during the incoming tide, as with it come the small fishes to feed upon the insects caught in the rise, and upon the low forms of life in the drift as it washes shoreward, the larger fish following in their wake, each from the smallest to the largest eagerly engaged in taking life in order to sustain life. All sea birds know this and the time of its coming well, and the white pelicans that have been patiently waiting in line along the beach, quietly move into the water, and glide smoothly out, so as not to frighten the life beneath, and at a suitable distance from the shore, form into a line in accordance with the sinuosities of the beach, each facing shoreward and awaiting their leader's signal to start. When this is given, all is commotion; the birds rapidly striking the water with their wings, throwing it high above them, and plunging their heads in and out, fairly make the water foam, as they move on in an almost unbroken line, filling their pouches as they go. When satisfied with their catch, they wade and waddle into line again upon the beach, where they remain to rest, standing or sitting, as suits them best, then, if disturbed, they generally rise in a flock and circle for a long time high in the air.
While fishing in this way, the pelican must catch enormous numbers of small fish.
Audubon (1840) speaks of finding "several hundred fishes, of the size of what are usually called minnows in the stomach of one bird," and he says:
Among the many which I have at different times examined, I have never found one containing fishes as large as those commonly swallowed by the brown species, which, in my opinion, is more likely to secure a large fish by plunging upon it from on wing, than a bird which must swim after its prey.
Dr. P. L. Hatch (1892) says:
Whether seizing a minnow, or a pickerel weighing three and a half pounds, as in one instance, the fish is grasped transversely, when it is tossed into the air and invariably received with its head foremost in its descent into the pouch.
The white pelican frequently feeds on large fish, such as trout, bass, chub, carp, catfish, suckers, pickerel, and pike, which it must catch by some other method than that described above; probably the larger fish are caught by swimming with the head partially or wholly submerged. In the breeding colonies on Lake Winnipegosis the ground around the nests was strewn with large numbers of the heads of pike and jackfish of great size; many of these must have belonged to fish weighing between twenty and thirty pounds; these large pike are very abundant in this lake, but I cannot understand how the pelicans could have caught such large fish or have transported them to the islands, yet I cannot see what else could have brought them there.
Mr. C. J. Maynard (1896) says of the food of a captive white pelican:
Johnny ate not only fish but meat, and the quantity which he devoured was surprising, for he often consumed six or eight pounds at a meal. Not that he was a glutton, for when he was satisfied no temptation would induce him to take another morsel. His favorite method of eating was to have his food thrown to him, when he would catch it in his beak, slip it into his pouch, then he would wait until I grasped him by the bill, when I would raise it and shake his head until the food passed downward into his stomach.
Behavior.--The white pelican is, all things considered, one of the largest birds in North America, and it maintains the dignity of its position in the grandeur of its flight. I know of no more magnificent sight in American bird life than a flock of white pelicans in flight. Its enormous expanse of wing is sufficient to lift its great weight easily and quickly from either land or water; its light hollow bones and the large air sac under its skin give it great displacement. The effort to rise seems labored at first, and is accomplished by rapid flappings, with a great swishing of powerful pinions beating the air; the great wings are thrown well forward at every stroke; the feet are dangling and the neck is only half extended. In a moment, as the bird gains headway, the feet are held out straight behind, the head is drawn back upon the shoulders, and the bird proceeds upon its way with slow majestic wing strokes. At intervals it sails for long distances on motionless, decurrent wings, a perfect picture of aerial grace and dignity. In the teeth of the strongest gale it soars aloft in majestic circles until almost out of sight, adjusting its aeroplanes to the wind and moving at will in any direction, without the slightest apparent effort. White pelicans are particularly fond of indulging in aerial exercise. Mr. Finley (1907) describes their daily performance as follows:
After returning from the fishing grounds and lounging about the nests for a while the pelicans began to circle over the colony in a large company, rising higher and higher till they were almost lost in blue. By watching we could occasionally see the faint flashes of white as the snowy breasts reflected a gleam of the sun. For hours the sky would glitter with these great birds as they soared about. Then it was thrilling to see some of them descend with rigid, half-closed wings. They used the sky as a big toboggan slide and dropped like meteors, leaving a trail of thunder. Several times when we first heard the sound we were deceived into thinking it was the advance messenger of a heavy storm and jumped up expecting to see black clouds rising from behind the mountains.
Doctor Chapman (1908) gives the following account of one of their aerial feats:
On the afternoon in question a thunderstorm developed rapidly, the sky became ominously black and threatening, and a strong wind whipped the tules into a rustling troubled sea of green. This atmospheric disturbance acted upon the soaring birds in a remarkable manner, stimulating them to perform aerial feats of which I had no idea they were capable. They dived from the heavens like winged meteors, the roar of the air through their stiff pinions sounding as though they had torn great rents in the sky. Approaching the earth they checked their descent by an upshoot, and then with amazing agility zigzagged over the marsh, darting here and there like swallows after insects.
On land the white pelican is not graceful, but it walks well, with a stately and dignified air. On the water it floats lightly as a cork, on account of its great displacement, and it swims rapidly and easily, but it is not built for diving. It looms up large and white even at a great distance. Its color pattern is somewhat similar to that of three other large birds, the gannet, the whooping crane, and the wood ibis, but in size and shape the four are distinctly different.
White pelicans are particularly silent birds; the only notes that I have heard them utter are the low-toned grunts or subdued croaking notes heard on their breeding grounds and not audible at any great distance. Doctor Chapman (1908) refers to this note as "a deep voiced, not loud, murmuring groan," and Doctor Grinnell (1908) calls it "a grunting quack." Audubon (1840) likens it to a sound "produced by blowing through the bunghole of a cask."
Dr. P. L. Hatch (1892) says:
This immense bird usually signals his arrival in the early part of April by his characteristic notes from an elevation beyond the range of vision except under the most favorable circumstances. The sound of those notes is difficult to describe, but unforgettable when once heard from their aerial heights. I have sometimes scanned the heavens in vain to see them, but am generally rewarded for my vigilance and patience if the sky is clear, and if cloudy, also, when I watch the rifts closely with my field glass.
This seems to be a loud note, which I have never heard or seen described elsewhere. Doctor Chapman (1908) describes the note of the young bird as "a low, coughing whining grunt"; a chorus of such cries from a large colony creates quite a volume of sound.
In spite of its great size and superior strength the white pelican is a gentle bird of mild disposition; like most giants it is good natured. It is easily tamed and makes an interesting and devoted pet in confinement; in fact no confinement is necessary if raised by hand in captivity. It never makes any trouble for its neighbors on its breeding grounds, where it is often intimately associated with cormorants and gulls. Aside from the damage done to eggs and young pelicans by gulls, it seems to have no enemies. Its habit of nesting on islands, probably developed by natural selection, saves it from certain extermination by predatory animals. It has not suffered materially from hunting for the millinery trade, although at one time a few skins were sold in the New York market; the demand did not seem to warrant the risk involved.
Winter.--From its breeding grounds in the fresh water lakes of the interior, the white pelican migrates southward in the fall through the interior valleys of our large rivers, lingering to feed or rest on the way and finally spreads out both east and west to spend the winter along our warmer sea coasts. Along the south Atlantic and Gulf coasts, it is fairly common all winter; many individuals remain until late in the spring and some stay all summer on the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico. It has been said to breed on the coast of South Carolina and Florida in the past and Capt. W. M. Sprinkle told me that it had bred recently on some islands near the mouth of the Mississippi River; it is undoubtedly common on the coast at times in summer, but the birds seen there at that season are probably nonbreeding birds which have lingered in their winter resorts. (A breeding colony has recently been discovered near Corpus Christi, Texas.) In its winter home it is associated with the brown pelican, frequenting salt water bayous, estuaries, and shallow bays, where it is very conspicuous at a long distance standing in the shoals or on the sand flats, looming up large and white among its smaller companions. It finds abundant food in the warm and shallow waters of the Gulf coast and secure roosting places on the sand bars and small islands, where it often congregates in large numbers, pursuing its own peculiar methods of fishing and indulging in its favorite pastime of aerial evolutions.
In closing I must quote Doctor Chapman's (1908) tribute to the antiquity of pelicans:
We must also accord to pelicans that respectful attention which is the due of extreme age. Pelicans became pelicans long before man became man, a study of the distribution of the eleven existing species leading to the conclusion that at least as late as the latter part of the Tertiary period our white pelican, and doubtless also other species, presented much the same appearance as it does today.
Of the eight Old World species, the one inhabiting southern Europe so closely resembles our American white pelican that early ornithologists regarded them as identical. Nevertheless, the localities at which their ranges are nearest are separated by some 8,000 miles. Such close resemblance, however, is neither an accident of birth or breeding. Pelicans did not appear independently in the two hemispheres. Birds so like each other and so unlike other existing birds must have a common ancestry. Common ancestry implies, in some time, continuity of range, and with the European and American white pelican we may well believe this to have occurred in that later portion of the Tertiary period, when a warm-temperate or even subtropical circumpolar climate existed. At this time, the pelican, from which we assume that the European and American white pelicans have both descended, inhabited the shores of the Arctic Ocean.
Eventually, by those climatic changes, resulting from a continuously decreasing amount of heat and culminating in the Ice Age, the individuals of this hypothetical polar pelican were forced southward, some in Europe, some in America, but whether at the same time or not is unknown.
Should some swing of the temperature pendulum ever
reestablish the pre-glacial polar climate, the European and
American pelicans, following in the wake of an advancing favorable
isotherm, may meet again on the shores of the Polar Sea (whether
as two species or one, who can say?); but in the meantime we look
on them with special interest as but slightly differentiated from
the bird which fished in the Arctic Ocean before, so far as we
know, man appeared upon the scene.
American White Pelican* Pelcanus Erythrorhynchos
*Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland. 1922. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 121: 282-293. United States Government Printing Office