All right, then: The pelican is no swan, all sensuous curves and stateliness. It's chunky. It's jowly. It has clown feet and a bill like a shovel, and it expresses sexual ardor by turning red in the face and growing a giant wart on its nose.
So what are we to make of the fact that those same writers reverse themselves, often in the very same paragraph, to call the white pelican majestic, magnificent, graceful, and truly beautiful?
Here's the reason: Our clumsy bird stood up, waddled forward, spread its wings, and took off. And voilà—caterpillar to butterfly in ten seconds.
Like loons and hot-air balloons, pelicans are not seen to their best advantage on terra firma. On the water, as Audubon wrote, "how changed do they seem!" Air sacs under the skin give them tremendous buoyancy; waves tip them back and forth like so many toy boats.
But it's in the air that pelicans are truly transformed. They rise with surprising speed for so large a bird, their flared primaries searching for wind currents and thermals to help them climb. They soar in great circles, dozens of birds wheeling together in an aerial ballet. An aircraft designer would say that the pelican's nine-foot wingspan, combined with a weight of around 15 pounds, gives it low wing loading. The nontechnical among us, presented with the sight of a sunlit gyre of pelicans, resort to words like majestic, magnificent . . . well, see above.
As is usually the case in nature, the pelican's beauty of form stems from roots of plain function. Waters where adults find the 150 pounds of fish it takes to raise one chick can be more than a hundred miles from breeding colonies—a commute made easier by the ability to soar and glide rather than flap continuously.
Nearly all American white pelicans migrate between nesting areas in the Great Plains and Great Basin and wintering grounds on the Gulf Coast, in California, and in Mexico. (A small number of nonmigratory birds nest in Texas and Mexico.) In the continent's midsection, pelicans flock together and follow the big rivers—the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Arkansas, the Red—on their journeys. For an Oklahoma rancher or an office worker in downtown Kansas City, the sudden materialization of 200 or more huge white birds circling overhead can be almost shocking.