When it comes to bird species in Edmonton pelicans are definitely not a common sight. Most Edmontonians would probably be as surprised as I was to discover that there is a species of pelican that spends the summer in our city. No, it isn’t our wide selection of summer festivals that attract the pelicans, it’s our many protected city wetlands like Roper Pond that provide a summer habitat for these majestic birds.
The American White Pelican spends the winter on warm coastal areas in California, Florida and Mexico. The pelicans arrive in Edmonton late April, usually traveling in groups as they are a very social bird. Up to twelve birds have been observed feeding together on Roper Pond. The birds sometimes work together when feeding forming a semi-circle and herding fish towards shallower water on the shore. The Pelicans remain in Edmonton until September when they make the long journey back to warmer waters.
The American White Pelican is a very large bird weighing up to 18 pounds with a wingspan of up to 3 meters! The bird is primarily white except for black tips on the underside of the wings that are visible when the bird is in flight. The long, flattened yellow bill has a bright yellow-orange pouch that is used for feeding. The pelican dips the pouch into shallow water scooping up fish, salamanders, frogs and aquatic invertebrates along with up to 20 litres of water! The water is drained from the pouch while the bird swallows its prey.
The American White Pelican nests in groups of two to several hundred pairs. Once a pair has bonded and mated, a small nest of rocks or twigs is chosen and two eggs are laid in mid-May. Both parents will take turns incubating the nest for around 29 days. While one parent tends the nest the other parent will feed, traveling up to 70 km to a preferred feeding site. The eggs hatch in June to July, often with only one chick surviving the first two weeks of life. After four weeks the juvenile birds begin to move away from the nest into pods of various aged chicks that provide protection for one another. The young birds will learn to fly at 11-12 weeks and at 13-14 weeks they are ready to leave home.
The population of American White Pelicans in Alberta is much sparser than it once was but is slowly growing. Any disturbance of their breeding sites due to urban development, changing water levels, or human curiosity will cause the pelicans to abandon nesting sites. Pelicans are also sensitive to toxins that build up in fish, their main food source. It is of utmost importance that we protect and conserve our natural areas such as Roper Pond to ensure these beautiful birds will continue to have nesting and feeding sites in Edmonton.