American White Pelicans
of the Middle Mississippi River Valley

Photo of Pelicans at Grafton, Illinois by Betty M. Bannister

One of the most anticipated events for birders in the Middle Mississippi Valley is the annual migration of the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). During their migration south from nesting areas in freshwater lakes in the northern United States and southern Canada the pelicans arrive in the region beginning in late September with the last leaving in early November. The pelicans make a return trip from the Gulf of Mexico where they winter along the coast from Florida to Mexico. The pelicans arrive in the Middle Mississippi Valley beginning in March and stay in the region for three to five weeks when the last pelicans depart in early April. The prime times to see huge flocks of these magnificent birds are mid-March and mid-October.

The American White Pelican, one of two species of pelicans in North America, is one of the world's largest birds.  They can weigh as much as 30 pounds and have wingspans that can reach 110 inches. Adult birds are primarily white except for its black-edged wings that are visible in flight. It has a long neck, a long, flattened orange bill with an expandable pouch and short orange legs with big webbed feet.

American White Pelicans are highly social and live in large, dense colonies. Flocks may work together in groups to encircle and driving their prey, usually small fish or crustaceans, towards the shore where they are easier to catch. The American white pelican doesn't dive into the water for its food like the brown pelican. It floats on the water and scoops up fish and water in its pouch and then holds its heads up, drains out the water, and then swallows its food.

The American White Pelican breeds in inland shallow freshwater lakes, wet prairies, and marshes during the summer from southern Canada and Minnesota west to northern California. They begin their migration to their winter grounds along the Gulf Coast in early fall. The American White Pelican is clumsy on land, but they are good swimmers and very graceful in flight. Like swans and geese, pelicans often fly in evenly spaced lines or V formations. However, these birds fly with their necks outstretched, while pelicans fly with their necks doubled back against their shoulders. They often set up a rhythmic pattern of wing beats that flow like a ripple from the lead bird to the end of the V.

There are many good sites in the Middle Mississippi River Valley. American White Pelicans are not as approachable as Brown Pelicans and they tend to shy away from people and developed areas so please do not scare or annoy the pelicans. When they are in the area they can be seen throughout the entire day. Remember to bring binoculars for best viewing and dress for the weather.

5 Great Places to see American White Pelicans
Riverlands Environmental
Demonstration Area
301 Riverlands Way
West Alton, MO
636-899-2600 or
  1200 acres of wetland area managed by the Corps of Engineers across the Clark Bridge from downtown Alton.
Grafton Waterfront
Highway 100
Jersey County, IL
  Grafton stretches out for approximately two miles along the Illinois River and is situated at the confluence of the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. The town boasts a number of restaurants, and shops featuring antiques and crafts. In the winter, look for Bald Eagles roosting on the islands that are easily seen as the Vadalabene Trail parallels the Illinois River.
Pere Marquette State Park
5 miles west of Grafton
on Route 100
  Illinois' largest state park, Pere Marquette is famous for the beauty of its fall colors and as a home for bald eagles in the winter. Plenty of year round activities.
Two Rivers
National Wildlife Refuge
County Road 1
618- 883-2524
  The refuge consists of a variety of habitats and is a major migration corridor for waterfowl, bald eagles and other birds. The refuge is closed mid-October to mid-December, but the office/visitor center is open weekdays and some weekends during that period.
Ted Shanks
Conservation Area

3643 Pike 145
Ashburn, MO
  Located on Highway TT off US 79 between Hannibal and Louisiana, this 6,705 acre area wetlands is teeming with waterfowl, songbirds, mammals and wildflowers. This site features primitive camping, boat ramps, and a staffed office with exhibits. Bald Eagles can be seen from late fall to early spring. Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets can be seen from late spring thru autumn.
River Ferries
Lewis and Clark
State Historic Site
Cuivre River
State Park
State Historic Site
- A very good site with comprehensive information on the American White Pelican and over 800 other birds.

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