For my first few years living on Anna Maria Island, I had only heard of white pelicans, but never had seen them. Eventually, my curiosity prompted me to go look for them. I had heard there were some at the south part of the island in Anna Maria Sound. At first, I thought I’d found them. They looked white, but they were in many ways similar to the more common local Brown Pelicans. Soon I learned Brown Pelicans have white heads and necks when they are adults, but not breeding. This is all I had seen.
Later I learned the best place to see the American White Pelican in this area was Cortez fishing village, and this is where I found them. On the occasion of my first American White Pelican spotting, there was no question about what it was. It was gigantic compared to the local browns. The wingspan of the white is 9 feet, compared to 7 feet for the brown. The white pelican also looks completely white when it floats in the water. The black primary and secondary flight feathers on the wings are only obvious during flight.
Other than size and color, the most obvious difference between Brown Pelicans and American White Pelicans is their feeding behavior. Brown Pelicans glide in the air, then do apparently awkward dives, splashing loudly into the water with a strange twist, but usually recovering with a pouch full of fish. White pelicans do not dive; instead they forage for fish in a methodical way. Sometimes they even swim as a group in a formation, moving the fish toward the shore or into narrow areas where they can be more easily caught.
The most unusual part of all pelicans is the bill, which features flexible bones supporting a deep pouch of skin. When the bird either dives or thrusts its bill into water, the skin expands, filling with water and fish. The water drains out slowly and the fish are swallowed. Pelicans use their pouches in breeding displays. A fibrous epidermal plate on the top of the American White Pelican’s bill also plays a role in these displays, as it grows during the breeding season and shrinks at other times.
Human residents of Anna Maria Island are used to seeing the resident Brown Pelicans, and the white, therefore, seems more exotic. I tend to think of showy, exotic species as coming from the tropics. However, the white pelican is not a more tropical species than its cousin, the brown. In fact, it breeds inland, to the north, up into Canada, while the brown stays put year round, along our southern shores.
Ever since my first sighting of the beautiful American White Pelican in Cortez, I have been delighted to see it occasionally in the bay in my neighborhood near Galati Marine. They appear only in some years, usually at Christmas time … as if they were angels showing up for a pageant. Their brilliant white feathers and large size are striking, as they regally float among the island’s smaller birds.
Although most of the world’s 7 species of pelican are in decline, the American White Pelican population has been stable. So we, on Anna Maria Island, can look forward to many more years of seeing this remarkable creature that visits us at the same time as the other snowbirds.