Feeding Time

By Bob Turner

Since moving to the Selkirk area, I have been astounded by the number of pelicans here. From our sunroom window, we have an excellent view of the Red River, and I have watched with fascination as flocks of these birds scout for fish in the river below. And it is rare to drive or walk anywhere along the river, without seeing large numbers of them gathered along the shore, busily “fishing”.

Anytime I see the birds, I recall the old limerick by Dixon Lanier Merritt:

pelicans by the locks
Pelicans by the locks in Lockport, Manitoba

“A wonderful bird is the Pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belly can.
He can hold in his beak
Enough food for a week!
But I’ll be darned if I know how the h___ican?”

I had never encountered pelicans anywhere I lived previously, and can’t help but marvel at how such an awkward-looking bird can be so graceful in flight. Judging by the number of people, young and old, that I see watching them anytime I pass the parks at Lockport, I am not alone. My fascination with pelicans led to a bit of research on them, and I discovered that they are an attraction in the Red River North area. They are fondly referred to here as the Lockport Air Force, or Lockport Squadron.

It is estimated that half of the Canadian population of American White Pelicans breeds in Manitoba. That number represents about one-third of the entire world population of the birds.Pelicans are commonly seen downstream from hydro-electric dams, waterfalls, and rapids as well as shallow bays and river mouths, which explains why Lockport is visited by hundreds of pelicans in the summer

The American White Pelican is a protected species in Manitoba. It is one of the world’s largest birds: it has an overall length of 130-180 cm, (50-70 in.) with the beak alone between 25 and 38 mm, and its weight averages between 5 and 9 kg. Apart from the difference in size, males and females look alike. Their wingspan is second in North America only to the California condor, at 240-300 cm, which partly explains their gracefulness in flight, as they glide effortlessly high above us or mere inches above the water surface.

While some pelicans have lived up to 26 years, most do not live beyond 10 to 15.

Adults start nesting when about three years old.. The birds arrive on the breeding grounds in March or April; nesting starts between early April and early June

The nest is a shallow depression scraped in the ground, and after about one week of courtship and nest-building, the female lays 2 or 3 eggs, with usually only one young per nest surviving.

Both parents incubate for about a month; they may commute 100 km or more between nesting site and feeding grounds, often resulting in overnight feeding. The young (who are born naked), leave the nest 3–4 weeks after hatching, and then spend the following month in a pod, developing mature plumage and eventually learning to fly. The parents care for their offspring some three more weeks, until late summer or early fall, when the birds gather in larger groups in preparation for migration. Usually, most are gone by the end of September.

Unlike its southern brown cousin, the American White Pelican does not dive for its food. Instead it catches its prey while swimming. Groups of 30 or more swim in a co-ordinated fashion to corral fish, then dipping their bills into the water they scoop them up, When this is not easily possible – for example in deep water, where fish can escape by swimming down out of reach – they prefer to forage alone.

Each bird eats more than 2 kg of food a day, mostly fish of low human economic value, as well as crayfish, salamanders and other aquatic animals. Occasionally, they steal food from other birds, including other pelicans, gulls and cormorants.

Dangers to pelicans include the red fox, coyotes, and human activity. Several gulls as well as the common raven have been known to steal pelican eggs and nestlings. Young pelicans may be hunted by great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, bald eagles, and golden eagles.

While there was a decline in their numbers in the mid-20thcentury as a result of chemical spraying, and draining and pollution of wetlands, they have recovered nicely thanks to environmental protection laws introduced in 1963, and by the beginning of this century, their numbers were well over 100, 000 adults, with over 30,000 nests in 50 different colonies in Canada alone.

And here in Red River North, we are fortunate to have an abundance of them.

So next time you are anywhere along the Red River from Lockport north, stop and spend a few minutes watching pelicans in flight or on the water. I believe you will come away with a new appreciation of these prehistoric-looking birds.

The American White Pelican – another Red River North Reason!