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American White Pelican

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, Adults. Photo Credit: Dave Hawkins
American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, Adults. Photo Credit: Dave Hawkins

White Pelicans do not dive for fish like Brown Pelicans, but instead dip their heads underwater and scoop up fish in their enormous bills. They will sometimes fish cooperatively, when fish are plentiful, several individuals will “corral” fish into a circle.  They then dip their heads simultaneously under the water to catch the fish.

White Pelican nest on lakes in the Northern Great Plains and in scattered locations in the western mountain states.  In winter they are found in California, Florida, around the Gulf Coast into Mexico, along the Mississippi River and in the larger lakes in TN.

The White Pelican, once rare in Tennessee, seems to be increasing it's range in TN and is being seen in winter State-wide.

Description: The huge yellow bill of the White Pelican makes it quite unmistakable. It is overall white with long, broad wings, with a black trailing edge.

Length: 62"

Wingspan: 108"

Weight: 16.4 lbs.

Similar Species: None. Occasionally confused with flying Whooping Cranes, which are extremely rare in Tennessee.

Habitat: In Tennessee, found most often in shallow bodies of water, rivers and lake edges.

Diet: Fish

Nesting and reproduction: There are no known nesting records for this species in Tennessee.

Status in Tennessee: Increasing in numbers in Tennessee especially in winter.

Dynamic map of American White Pelican eBird observations in Tennessee

Fun Facts:

  • When prey densities are high, White Pelicans will fish cooperatively. Several individuals move together to either encircle and concentrate fish, or drive them into shallow water. The pelicans will then simultaneously dip their heads into the water to catch the fish.
  • The oldest known American White Pelican was 31 years, 6 months old!
  • With a wingspan of 9 feet, the American White Pelican is one of the largest birds in North America.

Obsolete English Names: rough-billed pelican

American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, Range Map
American White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, Range Map

Best places to see in Tennessee: Reelfoot Lake, Kentucky and Lake Barkley and other large shallow bodies of water, rivers and lake edges across the state.

Consider using the online bird checklist program at eBird to help us understand bird populations and distributions in Tennessee. Click here to see how.


Sources:

Evans, R. M. and F. L. Knopf. 1993. American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). The Birds of North America, No. 57 (A. Poole and F. Gill, Eds.). Philadelphia: The Academy of Natural Sciences; Washington, D.C.: The American Ornithologists Union.

Robinson J. C. 1990. An Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Tennessee. Univ. Tennessee Press, Knoxville. 

Sibley, D. A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. A. A. Knopf, New York, NY.