White Pelican: Species Profile
On a calm, warm day, the waters of Snake Bight blend into pale sky. White profiles of egrets dot the horizon. Their stately movements are accomplished without sound. Turkey Vultures, forever waiting for some biological calamity, soar in stark silence over surrounding forest.
The scene would seem entirely tranquil if not for nine White Pelicans swimming near the bight's edge. They are feeding. They utter no vocalizations; their bodies glide with swan-like grace. But they produce incredible racket. The birds form a semicircle, and move deliberately shoreward. Simultaneously, their four-foot wings pummel the surface. Water churns and sprays as the feathered crescent herds dozens of fish into its center. The pelicans lower their bills and capture some fish in their net-like pouches. Before swallowing, they hold their bills vertically, allowing as much as three gallons of water to drain between closed mandibles.
The bounty of this communal effort is enjoyed by another Snake Bight resident. An immature Brown Pelican, still learning to feed with its parents' efficiency, dives into the melee. After several attempts, it flaps away--with a fish flopping madly in its gullet.
Since White Pelicans weigh between 10 and 13 pounds and have the second greatest wingspan of any bird in North America (9 to 9 1/2 feet), it's hard to believe these monstrosities can soar with the grace of flying ballerinas. Their flights are often highly synchronized.
White Pelicans winter in Everglades National Park. These beautiful creatures begin their long migration to their summer breeding grounds in early April, to freshwater lakes in the interior United States and Canada. Before leaving, breeding adults develop a horny plate or knob on their bills, believed to be a target for other adults when they arrive at their communal breeding grounds and fight for territories. It's possible these targets leave the breeders undamaged -- otherwise fights among adults could tear their gular pouches and injure them for life. Once the eggs are laid, the horny bill plates fall off.
White Pelicans are not as approachable as Brown Pelicans; they shy away from people and developed areas. In Florida Bay, flocks often hide in coves along the islands. When approached, they move out together, resembling down feathers pouring from a pillow. Look for wintering White Pelicans on the mudflat at low tide (visible from the visitor center breezeway), at the end of the Snake Bight Trail, and elsewhere in Florida Bay.