Published: June 2006
Ungainly Grace
The American White Pelican
By Mel White

Should we pity the poor young pelican?

The Ugly Duckling, after all, grew up to be a beautiful swan, while the baby pelican—surely among the homeliest creatures on Earth—can look forward only to becoming . . . an adult pelican. Whether this constitutes much of an improvement is debatable.

Consider some of the words used by writers from Audubon onward to describe the American white pelican: clumsy, awkward, ungainly, grotesque, and absurdly ridiculous. Even the authoritative and no-nonsense new series The Birds of North America temporarily abandons scientific detachment to call the pelican somewhat comic, as if it were a feathered basset hound.

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.

Many white pelicans spend winters in the company of brown pelicans, their saltwater cousins. In coastal areas, a watcher from shore can compare the two species' feeding styles. The brown folds its wings in flight and plunges into the water at speeds up to 40 miles an hour. White pelicans feed while afloat, large flocks often fishing cooperatively in the ornithological version of Olympics-style synchronized swimming. Birds herd schools of small fish into coves or form a circle that gradually tightens like a seine net. Then the pelicans dip their massively pouched bills into the water, scooping up prey in a frenzy of thrusting, paddling, and splashing. A pelican with a mouthful of minnows crooks its neck to let water drain from its pouch before swallowing—which is why it doesn't matter that, in the words of Dixon Merritt's famous limerick, "his bill will hold more than his belican."

Once, American white pelicans were commonly shot by anglers who considered them competitors for fish. Government agencies disrupted nesting colonies, believing pelicans a threat to sport fisheries. The situation improved after studies showed that white pelicans catch mostly nongame species; better protection has contributed to a steady rise in numbers since the 1960s.

In recent years, though, a series of setbacks has biologists watching. West Nile virus, to which chicks seem especially vulnerable, has caused partial nesting failures in several white pelican colonies. At Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota, home until recently to the largest colony in the United States, adult birds in 2004 abandoned eggs and newly hatched young for reasons still unknown. In 2005, something—perhaps prolonged cold, wet weather—caused mass mortality of young still in the nest. Two seasons that could have produced 15,000 or more pelicans on the refuge may have seen only a few hundred successfully fledge.

The problems may be only temporary, though, barely significant for a species that lives about 20 years. The genus Pelecanus, which encompasses all eight of the world's pelican species (or seven, if a certain Peruvian pelican is only a subspecies), has existed in more or less its present form for around 20 million years—far longer than the time since the first protohumans reared up on their hind legs to scan the African savanna. While to our anthropomorphic eye the pelican seems both goofy clown and graceful flier, the truth is that it's simply going about its business the way it always has, fitting precisely into its unique ecological niche.

The pelican inspires laughter and wonder, and, maybe even more, a kind of affectionate empathy: After all, who among us hasn't at times felt awkward and unlovely, and yet imagined that—given room to stretch our wings—we just might be beautiful?