Breeding American White Pelican

American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) lay one to six white eggs on a low mound built from mud and debris, usually on marshy islands. These monogamous birds nest in colonies. Try as I may, I cannot find pelican nests. Although I see groups of pelicans in areas where I believe they could be nesting, without a boat I cannot get close enough to confirm my suspicions. Maybe it is just as well.

Although I cannot locate a nest, it is not difficult to identify American white pelicans in the breeding stage. Both sexes grow a large, fibrous protuberance, or keel, on their culmen (upper bill). Soon after the eggs are laid the keel is shed. The legs and bills of breeding adults, which are usually yellowish, turn orange during the breeding season. Early in the breeding season the pelicans have pale yellow plumes on the head and breast. These plumes are very pale and extremely difficult to see. William Lovell Finley, American wildlife photographer and conservationist, wrote that he believed only old pelicans had plumes yellow enough to see.

These breeding American white pelicans were photographed at Baum Lake (Shasta County CA) and Ash Creek Wildlife Area (Modoc County CA). The fibrous keels are readily visible. The keel on the sitting bird is beginning to disintegrate, it must have already bred. And no, that pelican is not on a nest. It stood up and walked off  – no nest or eggs! The other single pelican was feeding. Algae from the water can be see in its bill.

Some day I will find my pelican nest!

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2 Responses to Breeding American White Pelican

  1. Lin says:

    That is fascinating (thank you for explaining the caption ‘disintegrating keel’).
    I’ve never noticed the keel and would not have known its significance if I had.

    • gingkochris says:

      I am not certain “disintegrate” is the appropriate word, but you get the idea. I assume the pelican with the broken keel has bred, however, I suppose that pelican could have somehow caught the keel and damaged it. Do not know for certain.

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