Thursday, January 13, 2011

What's Your Wingspan? - The American White Pelican

As our boat rounded a sandbar in the 10,000 islands portion of the Everglades, I noticed a flock of twenty five, massive American White Pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) resting and preening their feathers on an ephemeral tidal island. As the boat navigated around the backside, a flock of Double-crested Cormorants (Phalacrocorax auritus) came into view along the waters edge and the contrast in size between the birds was stunning. I considered for a moment that this was a different, smaller species of cormorant, but the white pelicans are just that big.

The Double-crested Cormorant is not a small bird. With a wing-span over 50 inches and weighing over five pounds, the heavy-bodied diving bird is a conspicuous sight in the water, on power lines and in flight. When standing next to the American White Pelican, they look tiny.

The American White Pelican is the Airbus of birds. They can weigh up to twenty pounds and have a wingspan over nine feet wide. In Florida there is no bigger bird. Consider your “wingspan” is roughly your height. Mine would be five feet nine inches. I’m only nine inches taller than a White Pelican.

Long, broad wings allow the pelicans to reduce energy use by taking advantage of thermal updrafts and wave lift. As warm air rises, it creates a column of warm air that pelicans and other soaring birds can use to their advantage and rise to higher heights. Wind pushed up and over waves also provides a lift for many birds gliding over water.

Most of the White Pelicans use their wingspan to their advantage as they migrate south from the northern plains and eastern Rockies in the US and Canada. Many spend the winter here in Florida where they work in teams, paddling on the surface and steering fish into shallow water where they can scoop them up with their pouched beak. It’s an entirely different strategy then that of the Brown Pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalis) who dive from the air into the water to capture their prey.
Above me, a flock of fifty or more White Pelicans soars above the Everglades. I envy their view. If only I had a wider wingspan.

1 comment:

  1. I never thought about it until you wrote this blog, but I think pelicans are one of my favorite birds in the world. That bird speaks of location more than any other bird I like.