Know Your Pelicans: The Locals and the Snowbirds

While the term “snowbird” now often refers to our part-time human neighbors, it originally applied to real birds who winter in warmer climes. The general parameters of the snowbird season, both human and avian, are roughly from October through March, and there’s one that’s hard to miss: the American white pelican.

Perhaps you thought our local, brown pelicans turned white in the winter? In fact, the brown pelican, our beloved city mascot, is a smaller, year-round cousin of the white pelican. 

The American white pelican winters in Florida, among other warmer climes. Photo courtesy of FWC

Known for their dramatic hunting methods, brown pelicans are uniquely outfitted for catching their favorite meal, fish. Once their target is acquired, typically from an elevated perch or during airborne reconnaissance, the bird engages its diving position. Wings and feet are tucked back, their neck extends creating an arrow-shaped profile as they dive, full-speed into the water toward their target. With its beak opened a second before splashy impact, the pelican envelopes the fish inside its baggy throat pouch. The water is flushed out, and any unlucky prey is tossed back down his throat by throwing his beak into the air. Gulp. The brown pelican has been observed wagging his tail feathers when the catch is good.

Of course, brown pelicans are often found in their other favorite hunting grounds, on docks and seawalls, making sympathy eyes at the friendly fisherman for a free meal. Brown pelicans breed in colonies and, in Florida, largely in the safety of mangroves.

A brown pelican hangs out on a St. Pete seawall, waiting for a free snack

Our seasonal visitors, the white pelicans, stand out distinctly from their local brown relatives.  Their brilliant white feathers are flashy, and they have stylish black wing-tip accents. Beak, eye sockets, feet and legs complete the look with a dash of orange flesh. With adult bird wingspans of over nine feet, they are one of the largest birds in North America. They migrate away from cold climates in North American plains, where they sometimes live inland in contrast to their brown cousins. At the end of the snowbird season, they travel back north to breed. It’s as if they take a winter break ahead of the arduous task of raising their young, usually two at a time, in the spring and summer months. 

Seasonal white pelican populations can usually be found at North Shore Park and at Fort DeSoto. Photo courtesy of FWC

Much different from the high-flying maneuver employed by brown pelicans, white pelicans feed by dipping their orange beaks in shallows, seeking to snatch up fish, crabs, and other tasty critters. Their beaks have a relatively smaller pouch, and they don’t dive. They are known to work together at times intentionally lining up, side by side, herding fish into the shallows to catch them more easily. They are also known to steal fish from other birds, and their size allows them to bully other species like cormorants, a bird very successful at catching fish.

While you can find brown pelicans year-round in just about any waterfront space, good spots to see white pelicans – when they’re in town – include North Shore Park and in larger colonies in Ft. DeSoto. Find a list and maps of waterfront parks at stpeteparksrec.org/parkfinder.

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