American White Pelican

Biology | Damage Id | Management | Resources

Figure 1. American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). Photo by Mike Baird.

Legal Status

In the US and Canada, American white pelicans are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA). The MBTA makes it illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird, or the parts, nests, or eggs of such a bird except under the terms of a valid permit issued pursuant to federal regulations. 

As authorized by the MBTA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) issues permits to qualified applicants for the take of depredating birds. The Department of Interior, USFWS, Division of Migratory Bird Management develops migratory bird permit policy, and the permits themselves are issued by the Regional Bird Permit Offices of the USFWS.  

The USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services (WS) recommends that managers of aquaculture facilities take the following steps to resolve damage by migratory birds:

  1. Contact the appropriate wildlife damage control biologist employed by WS in your region of the state. The state office of the WS program may provide assistance.  
  2. The wildlife damage control biologist will evaluate your complaint and, if necessary, conduct a site inspection to identify the migratory species of concern, estimate the number of migratory birds, estimate damage, and document other information.  
  3. The wildlife damage control biologist will recommend nonlethal bird control techniques.   

If existing hazing devices are not effective, wildlife damage control biologists may make recommendations on the damage report for lethal control of the species and the maximum number of birds that may be killed. The biologist will attach the report to a completed USFWS Federal Fish and Wildlife License/Permit Application or Depredation Permit (Form 3-200) and mail it to the Special Agent in Charge in the appropriate USFWS Regional Office. The client pays a fee (currently $100) to cover administrative costs. The wildlife damage control biologist will provide details, including the appropriate addresses.  

A self-imposed turnaround time for the issuance or rejection of depredation (kill) permits by the USFWS is approximately one week, providing the permit application is complete and no unusual legal or environmental issues are involved.  

All recommendations include becoming familiar with federal and state laws related to bird depredation, knowledge of bird identification, and good communication with involved agencies. Actions that may be taken against a depredating bird species to protect a crop may vary from state to state and region to region. In recent years, as the number of aquaculture-related bird depredation complaints have risen, USFWS has increased legal action against individuals violating the MBTA. Due to the severe legal consequences of violating the MBTA, individuals should be aware of all these factors and follow the proper permit process before taking action against depredating species.  

Physical Description

American white pelicans are mostly white with black primary and secondary feathers (Figure 1). Their bills and legs vary in color with age. Young pelicans have pale, gray-pink bills and legs while adults have yellow to orange-red bills and legs. During the breeding season, adult pelicans develop a horny knob on the culmen (bill) and pale yellowish feathers on the chest and upper wing. When sleeping or standing (loafing), pelicans appear to have squat bodies with long necks. The American white pelican has a large gular (throat) pouch to capture and manipulate prey, a long bill with sharp edges and a small hook (or nail) at the tip. It also has webbed feet and is a strong swimmer. American white pelicans have the widest wing span of any bird in North America (96 to 114 inches). In flight, pelicans appear graceful and soaring. Males are typically heavier than females, averaging 14.3 and 11.2 pounds, respectively. The weight range for males is 11 to 18 pounds, and for females, 9.3 to 13.7 pounds. 

Species Range

The continental divide separates American white pelicans into two geographically distinct populations. The eastern population migrates primarily through the Great Plains and along the Mississippi River and winters in the lower Mississippi River Valley and along the Gulf Coast. The western population migrates along the Pacific coast and winters along the coast of southern California and western Mexico. 

The breeding range of the American white pelican extends from south-central British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and southwestern Ontario southward to WI, MN, ND, SD, MT, WY, CO, UT, NV, CA and OR. One viable American white pelican colony of approximately 400 exists near Corpus Christi, Texas in the Laguna Madre. 

Voices and Sounds

Adults are silent except for low, short grunts typically given in agonistic or sexual contexts at a breeding colony. Young pelicans (prior to fledging and at the colony) are more vocal with loud squawks and food-begging calls. Non-vocal sounds include wings splashing water during bathing and when herding prey, and popping of the bill during agonistic encounters. 

Tracks and Signs

Pelicans have large webbed feet, 6½ to 7½ inches long and 4¼ to 5⅜ inches wide that trample vegetation down to the soil in heavily trafficked areas. Loafing sites have large quantities of white-colored excrement and large feathers. The size of a loafing site depends on the number of birds using the area (e.g., more birds = larger area).