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The Buzz

Pelicans Have Returned to McKinley Woods

The scene at McKinley Woods on March 11, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Eileen Capodice via Will County Wildlife)

Good news for avid Will County birders — the pelicans are back at McKinley Woods in Channahon, having been spotted on the DuPage River multiple times this week.

The pelicans that pass through Will County each spring and again in the fall are American white pelicans, one of the largest birds in North America, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. These large white birds are clunky and awkward on land, but are good swimmers and graceful flyers. In flight is where they reveal a secret as well: While the pelicans appear all white on land or in water, but in flight reveal jet-black feathers on their wingtips that starkly contrast their otherwise-white plumage. 

In the spring, the pelicans travel through Will County on their annual migration north from the Gulf of Mexico to their breeding grounds in the Dakotas or Canada. They'll return to the area again in the fall, usually in late September, as they make the return trip south. 

Typically, the pelicans arrive in Will County in March and will stay in the area through May, then can be seen again from September through November, said Kelli Parke, an interpretive naturalist for the Forest Preserve District. 

The number of pelicans in the area can vary, from as few as 10 to well more than 200, Parke said, adding that their arrival each year is as exciting to the staff at Four Rivers Environmental Education Center as it is to birders  and the public in general. The pelicans often can be seen from the kayak launch at the Kerry Sheridan Grove access point. 


Many people aren't aware pelicans make an apperance in Will County, because the American white pelicans are the lesser-known cousins of brown pelicans, which live along the ocean and gulf coasts in the southern United States. The American white and brown pelicans are among about a half-dozen pelican species in the world, all of which have the long bill and throat pouch for which they are known, National Geographic reports. 

Unlike brown pelicans, which dive into the water for food, American white pelicans eat from the water's surface. They dip their bills into the water to catch fish and other aquatic animals, sometimes upending themselves into the water like ducks do, the Cornell Lab reports.

American white pelicans have long, orangish-yellow bills. During the breeding season, the adults grow a horn-like or plate-like projection on the top of their bills, but this projection is shed by the end of the breeding season, according to Cornell Lab.

Here in Will County, in addition to Four Rivers and McKinley Woods, the pelicans can also sometimes be seen at Rock Run Rookery in Joliet. Last fall, a group of pelicans spent time at McKinley Woods, as seen in this video.

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