Just swimming

Lone pelican swimming near Spinney Reservoir. (Photo by Marianne Mogon/The Flume)

It’s springtime in the Rockies and back are the bluebirds, hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. Flowers are beginning to bloom, trees are budding, and oh yeah, the pelicans have returned. Yes, pelicans. The American white pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, can be found in Park County at Antero, Spinney, and Eleven-Mile Reservoirs as well as other lakes and streams.

Adult American white pelicans are snowy white with black flight feathers visible only when the wings are spread. They feed from the water’s surface, dipping their beaks into the water to catch fish and other aquatic organisms.

Breeding usually takes place in the spring, and human activity is their biggest threat. Disturbance of breeding sites by boaters and fishermen may cause the birds to abandon an entire nesting colony, leaving eggs and young chicks exposed to harsh weather and predators.

The pelicans on Park County waters usually avoid humans by spending their times in areas not accessible to human activity.

In late August or early-September, they migrate to the Gulf of Mexico coast for the winter and return the following spring to their summer homes in Colorado.

Pelicans are true snow birds and are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

American white pelicans live about 12-14 years. They have wide, flat bills with orange pouches and they scoop their food while swimming. It is estimated that they can eat about four pounds of fish every day. They fish in groups and form half circles or a line and beat their wings on the surface to drive the fish into shallow waters.

They can hold up to three gallons of water in their pouches. They tilt their head back to drain out the water and then swallow the fish. Their young feed by sticking their bills into the parent’s pouch to retrieve partially-digested food.

Viewing the birds is best done by boat, but motor boats are discouraged to avoid disturbing the pelicans, and people are urged to keep their distance. Not only will this protect their breeding and nesting sites, but will insure their return to the area.

 “A Wonderful Bird is the Pelican,” is a poem by Dixon Lanier Merritt, and it goes “A wonderful bird is the pelican, His bill will hold more than his belican, He can take in his beak, enough food for a week, But I don’t know how the helican.”

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