Some Southwest Florida “snowbirds” really are birds …… in this case, the American white pelicans.
Unlike the brown pelicans, which are year-round residents of Florida, white pelicans spend only a portion of the year here in Southwest Florida.
The American white pelicans only come here when the U.S. heartlands, plains and ranges around the Rockies are coated with the frigid white powder. In fact, it is estimated that over 1,500 white pelicans migrate to the area for a period of time ranging from October through March. These birds are known to travel from as far away as Idaho, Minnesota and Canada. The most northerly nesting colony can be found on islands in the rapids of the Slave River which is located between Fort Fitzgerald, Alberta, and Fort Smith, Northwest Territories.
American white pelicans winter on the Pacific and Gulf of Mexico coasts from central California, Florida and south to Panama, also along the Mississippi River at least as far north as St. Louis and Missouri. In the winter season, they are rarely found on the open seashore, preferring estuaries and lakes. Large groups of these birds make the journey here to enjoy the warmer sunny winter weather.
The American white pelican, similar to, yet rivals the trumpeter swan, with a similar overall length. The American white pelican is the longest bird native to North America. (Being both very large and plump) A white pelican's weight is nearly double that of the brown pelican. The white pelican’s wingspan is 9 feet compared to that of the brown's 6½-foot wing span. Also, has the second largest average wingspan of any North American bird, after the California condor. This large wingspan allows the bird to use soaring flight with ease and grace.
Unlike the brown pelican, the American white pelican does not dive for its food. Instead it catches its prey while swimming. The brown pelicans are notorious skydivers and piling-perches year-round.
White pelicans search for food in large groups of a dozen or more birds to feed. Instead of diving for food the way brown pelicans do, white pelicans swim on the surface in a semicircle and herd the fish to shallower water near the shore.
Then using their pouches as fishnets, the white pelicans submerge their heads and necks in order to scoop up the fish. When this is not easily possible …. For example in deep water, where fish can escape by diving out of reach, they will then prefer to forage alone.
Wild American white pelicans live for an average of more than 16 years. In captivity, the record life span stands at over 34 years.
They are colonial breeders, with up to 5,000 pairs per site. Wild American white pelicans arrive on the breeding grounds in March or April (depending on spring weather conditions) with nesting starting between early April and early June.
This species is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. It has the California Department of Fish and Game protective status California species of special concern (CSC).
There was a pronounced decline in American white pelican numbers in the mid-20th century; this was attributable to the excessive spraying of DDT, endrin and other organochlorides in agriculture areas, also with the widespread draining and pollution of wetlands. After stricter environmental protection laws came into effect, the American white pelican populations have recovered well, and are stable or slightly increasing today.