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American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)

American White Pelican


  • One of the world's largest birds, the American white pelican weighs five to eight kilograms (11 to 18 pounds).
  • Wingspan can measure up to 3 metres (10 feet).


  • Adult male and female pelicans look alike throughout the year, and distinguishing characteristics include:
    • primarily white plumage with a few feathers tinged with yellow on the breast and back, and black wing tips
    • long, flattened, yellow bill with a brightly coloured yellow-orange pouch beneath used for feeding
    • bright orange feet
    • breeding birds have a pale yellow crest on the back of the head
  • Juvenile pelicans are similar to adults but may have a grey patch on their head and back of the neck.
  • The iris of the eye is usually brownish in juveniles, but orange-yellow in adults.
  • The pelican flies with its neck doubled back against its shoulder.
  • The American white pelican has a small and sparsely distributed population in Alberta. Less than half of the 20 known historic nesting islands are still in use today.
  • Previously, the white pelican had a broad distribution across interior North America. Today, breeding populations can be found from the Slave River in the Northwest Territories south to Colorado, and from the Rocky Mountains east to Lake Superior.
Natural History


  • Inhabits freshwater lakes in the summer.


  • An adult pelican can consume up to two kilograms (four-and-a-half pounds) of food each day.
  • Diet includes young, warm-water fish such as:
    • Perch
    • Stickleback
    • Northern pike
    • Lake whitefish
  • Salamanders, frogs, and a variety of aquatic invertebrates are also taken when they are abundant.

When Active

  • The American white pelican arrives in Alberta in late April and leaves Alberta before freeze-up in late September, migrating to warmer coastal areas to spend the winter.
Reproduction and Growth

Breeding Behaviour

  • Nests are grouped together in colonies and the same nesting site may be used for many years. Colonies may range from a few pairs to several hundred, and may also contain a number of juveniles and nonbreeding adults.
  • In Alberta, pelican colonies are found in lakes in the boreal forest, aspen parkland and prairie regions. Ideally, lakes are deep enough to separate a nesting island from the shore throughout the summer.
  • Both sexes prominently display their bills during courtship rituals that include bowing, strutting, pointing their bills skyward and short courtship flights.
  • Once the pair-bond is formed, a small nesting area within the colony is chosen and defended.
  • Little actual nest-building is done. The nest may simply be a mound of dirt, pebbles, or sticks surrounding a shallow depression where the eggs are laid.
  • Egg-laying within the colony can occur over a four-to-five week period, beginning in mid-May.
  • Typically, two large, chalky, white eggs are laid and then incubated for approximately 29 days. Both adults tend the nest. While one parent incubates the eggs, the other will leave the colony to feed.
  • The egg-hatching period lasts throughout June and July.

Growth Process

  • Newly hatched young are blind and naked, but within a week they become covered in warm protective down.
  • Although two eggs are usually laid at each nest, often only one chick survives for more than two weeks after hatching. Chicks remain dependent on adults for protection against predators as well as from wind, sun, rain and cold until their third or fourth week.
  • At four weeks of age, young birds begin to move away from the nest site during the day and gather in groups called pods.
  • Pods normally include young of various ages with older chicks providing protection for younger birds. This social activity allows adults to spend less time feeding and protecting their young.
  • As juvenile pelicans grow older, they spend less time in the large pods and start to venture off in smaller groups. At five to six weeks of age, they will return to adults only for food and start spending time on the water.
  • At 10 weeks, they can outweigh adults, but this extra weight is lost when the young birds learn to fly at 11 to 12 weeks.
  • By 13 to 14 weeks, young pelicans are ready to leave the home lake and forage elsewhere.
Conservation and Management


The American white pelican are classified as Sensitive in the current General Status of Alberta Wild Species report. See:


  • The most significant factor affecting white pelican populations in Alberta is the disturbance of their breeding sites. Human disturbance, even if motivated by simple curiosity and attraction, has been the most common cause of colony failure and abandonment in the past century.
  • Loss of habitat from changing water levels is another form of disturbance affecting pelican breeding populations and is the most common reason for the temporary abandonment of a colony.
  • As predators at the top of their food chain, white pelicans are also at risk of accumulating toxins that occur in their food sources.

Current management

  • The American white pelican is protected by the provincial Wildlife Act and it is illegal to kill or harass individuals or disturb their nests at any time of the year.


Page Information

Updated: Jan 8, 2014