Pelican Back on his Way South

We had the most interesting patient at Lakeside in late January – a white pelican!  It was found in Lee’s Summit (the same town where Lou and I keep our horses) – on the edge of a pond, covered in mud.  It appeared as though his right leg was injured.  Lee’s Summit Animal control fed him three fish before they got him out of the water.

Once he was safely at Lakeside, he was cleaned up, the parasites in his feathers were treated, antibiotics were administered and he was fed.  The next day, his foot and leg were X-rayed and Dr Exline recommended that we splint his leg and bandage his foot for two weeks – and then see what happened.  This bird was really big – he weighed eleven pounds and ate over 2000 grams of fish a day!  After a few attempts, the staff learned that wetting the fish made it go down easier.  A few days after he arrived, his chart said: “I’m Better.  I can fly!  I bite.”  The good news is that after treatment – which lasted about 4 weeks – he was ready to go. 

He was released near where he was found.  There were several white pelicans on the lake in Lee’s Summit and they seemed to welcome him back.  A couple of days later, all the birds were gone.

I learned all sorts of interesting things about white pelicans while we had this guy at the center. 

First of all, they are HUGE!  The bird stands about three feet high (he didn’t have to raise his head too much to look me directly in the eye) and its wingspan is between eight and nine feet.  It’s mainly white – the primaries are dark, but you don’t really notice that until you take a really close look.  His feet are orange – webbed, of course – and his legs are short for his body.  The pouch stretches as much as six inches when it is full of fish.  They have an extra vertebra in their necks that prevent them from raising their faces.

White pelicans are very social and generally form large colonies to raise their families.  They like to live near lakes, salt bays, marshes and beaches.  They spend the summers in northern California, western Nevada, Utah, South Dakota, Minnesota and occasionally on the central coast in Texas.  During the winters, they hang around the Pacific coast from central California to Guatemala and Nicaragua and from Florida and the Gulf States south along the Gulf of Mexico to Yucatan.  The ones we see in Missouri are probably birds who spent the summer in Minnesota and are heading for the Gulf coast.  I wonder if they are planning on spending spring break on Padre Island.  I suspect that the group our pelican met up with were late starting their migration.

Adults rarely make any noise, but when they do it is usually a low grunt.  However, the young feel the need to squeal, and are very noisy.  Our bird was generally quiet – he got excited when he had the chance to swim.  Most of the time though, he looked bored.

In spite of their large size, pelicans sit high on the water because their bones are full of air and the air sacs in their body are large.  Unlike other pelicans, the American White Pelican is does not drop from great heights to catch its prey; it simply floats along the water and scoops up fish with its enormous bill.  The bill can hold 3 gallons of water, and after the fish have been caught the bill is pointed downward allowing the water to drain, and then the bill is raised and the bird swallows.

Having the opportunity to see an uncommon bird like this, up close and personal, is just another benefit of being a Friends member.

(Story and photos by Debby Barker, FOLNC Volunteer)