Winter Flocks of American White Pelicans
Story and Photographs by: Bronwyn Clear, Texas Master Naturalist
If you plan to go fishing below the dam on Lake Livingston in fall or winter, you will have the good fortune of seeing our majestic American White Pelicans. They fly in by the hundreds during the colder months. A few might stay behind the dam during winter days, but the best time to see their massive numbers are in the morning before they head out to dabble and forage, or early evening when they come back to hunker down for the cold nights. Low waters behind the dam are ideal for these birds because the area is spacious, protected from the cold north wind, and offers large hunting grounds up on the lake or down the Trinity River. Summertime fishermen on Lake Livingston rarely get the chance to see these magnificent birds because most of them are gone by the end of April, flying back to the far north to breed and raise their young on colder freshwater lake shores.
Stunning is the best word to describe these pelicans! Big and plump with a weight between 11-20 lbs, a height of 4-5 feet and a wing span of 8-9 feet, the White Pelican is one of the largest birds in all of North America. Their coloring is mostly snowy white with jet black underwing feathers, and long orange legs, bills and throat pouches. In winter the white pelicans fly up over the Livingston dam and majestically paddle up and down the lake in large flotillas that often include cormorants and seagulls, all hunting together to catch fish.
Unlike the brown ocean pelicans, white pelicans spend much of their time on freshwater bodies, and do not plunge-dive or swim under water to catch their meals. When they are hungry, they drop down their long necks, dip their heads underwater, open their beaks and let the fish swim in! They can hold up to 3 gallons of water in their American White Pelicans below Lake Livingston Dam Preening to keep feathers in top shape enormous expandable throat pouches. Sometimes it looks as if they are drowning when they up-end and hold their heads underwater for long periods of time, but they need 4+ lbs of fish per day to survive.
“A wonderful bird is the pelican His bill can hold more than his belican. He can take in his beak Food enough for a week; But I’m damned if I see how the helican.” (by Dixon Lanier Merritt, American Poet and Humorist)
White Pelicans are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which makes it illegal to harass, possess or harm them, or their nests and eggs.
Learn more about the incredible nature in our area by joining a chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist organization. To find a chapter close to you, or to reada bout the state program, go online to www.txmn.org. Volunteer and get involved!