Pelicans Flock to Preserves

They make a pit stop in Will County prior to migrating south

One of nature’s largest avian specimens – with a wingspan that can stretch more than 9 feet – have once again made a pit stop in Will County prior to migrating south for the winter.

The birds are American white pelicans – a species that may surprise you because most people don’t think pelicans spend any time in Illinois. But they do, and they have been for a couple of decades.

While American white pelicans don't normally arrive at McKinley Woods in Channahon until around the end of September, they are a bit early this year. We've already had a number of sightings

“I watch them every year and that seems to be the average time they move to the McKinley Woods location,” said Erin Ecker, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District. "But we have seen them earlier and later, especially if there are tropical storms or hurricanes. It seems they can sense those weather conditions from all the way up north!

Photo courtesy of Joel Craig

“They tend to hang out in the confluence of the DuPage and Des Plaines,” Ecker added.“So when you pull into the preserve, they are on the left-hand side as you drive into Kerry Sheridan Grove.”

Ecker said the easiest way to see the pelicans is to stroll through the preserve.

“When they are here, it doesn’t matter what time of day. You will see some flying and some swimming.”

These pelicans are different from their southern cousins, the brown pelicans that hang around Florida’s docks, said Chris Gutmann, a Forest Preserve facility supervisor who oversees Lake Renwick Heron Rookery Nature Preserve in Plainfield, where pelicans are abundant during migration season.

In addition to being a different color, brown pelicans are smaller and they have different feeding habits. They plunge-dive to catch fish, Gutmann explained. American white pelicans don’t dive. They use their numbers to corral fish and then they scoop them up into their beaks.

"Their pouches hold up to three gallons of water,” Gutmann said. “They’ll throw their heads back to swallow fish or drop their heads down to let the water drain out.

American pelicans are white with black-tipped wings that are visible during flight. They can weigh up to 30 pounds, making them one of the largest birds on the continent. Their body length of 50-70 inches (including an 11-to-15-inch beak) rivals that of the massive trumpeter swans and the pelican’s average wingspan of 8-10 feet is second only to the California condor, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) website for McNary National Wildlife Refuge in Washington.

The USFWS calls white pelicans “clowns of the bird world” because of their “goofy” appearance on land that features clumsy webbed feet and rumpled-looking feathers. Once they take flight, however, the birds “become graceful and even elegant,” the agency continued.

Photo courtesy of Paul Dacko

The birds also are incredibly buoyant on the water because of air sacs under their breast skin.

“The ones that come through here are going from the Gulf of Mexico to the Dakotas or up to Canada,” Gutmann explained about the spring migration, which sees the birds moving north to Lake Renwick in late March and April.

Rita Renwick, president of the Will County Audubon Society, said residents of some areas of the county have a better chance of seeing pelicans than others.

“People who live in Channahon might be more familiar with them, since they have been seen on the Illinois & Michigan Canal in Channahon, but most people don’t realize they are here,” she said.

Local Audubon Society members first reported seeing migrating pelicans at the lake in 1990.

“Within the last 15 to 20 years, white pelicans have been seen with ever greater frequency in our area, especially in the wide-waters area near McKinley Woods – Kerry Sheridan Grove,” Renwick said.

Photo courtesy of Carol Cooley

Here are some additional facts about the American white pelican:

  • Pelicans date back 30 million years and there are eight different species on the planet currently.
  • American white pelicans are usually silent except for some grunting and croaking in nesting areas.
  • They forage in shallow wetlands for small fish, crustaceans and amphibians, including minnows, carp, suckers, salamanders, tadpoles and crayfish.
  • Adults eat 3-6 pounds of food a day, which is 20-40 percent of their body weight.
  • Threatened at one time by water level changes, pesticides and human disturbance of their habitat, the number of white pelicans has increased tenfold since the mid-1960s to a breeding population of 120,000.
  • American white pelicans are monogamous during the breeding season. They breed in colonies on islands in freshwater lakes or ponds the upper Midwest the West or Canada during the summer.
  • The birds’ mating ritual involves short flights and a bit of bowing and strutting. During the mating season, the birds’ beaks and legs turn bright orange and both males and females sport nuptial tubercles or “breeding horns” on the top of their bills. The horns fall off after the breeding season concludes.
  • Pelicans lay eggs in a depression the adults have scraped into the ground or on brush. Both parents will incubate the nest using their four-toed, webbed feet and they turn the eggs approximately three times a day. Females will lay two eggs, but typically only the stronger of the two chicks will survive.
  • In winter, American white pelicans head for the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, Florida and California as well as Mexico and Central America.

Lead image by Paul Dacko