Wildlife At Risk in British Columbia
A brochure series which will eventually include brochures on other Red 
and Blue listed species, including fish, invertebrates and plants, and on 
ecosystems.  Produced by the Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks, 
Wildlife Branch, 780 Blanshard St. Victoria, BC V8V 1X4. For copies of 
this brochure, write to the Wildlife Branch. Funded by Corporate 
Resource Inventory Initiative and Ministry of Environment, Lands and 
Parks.
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Why are American White Pelicans at risk?

British Columbia has only one 
nesting colony of American White Pelicans. It is located at Stum Lake in 
White Pelican Provincial Park in the Chilcotin region, 70 kilometres west 
of Williams Lake. Because these colonial birds are migratory, have only a 
single nesting site, and feed on fish in shallow lakes sometimes hundreds 
of kilometres from Stum Lake, they are particularly vulnerable to a variety 
of threats.

At Stum Lake, both natural and human-influenced events can affect 
nesting success. Fluctuating water levels are the most frequent natural 
cause of colony abandonment. In drought years, nesting islands become 
connected to the mainland, allowing access to land-based predators. A 
single severe flood or a series of wet years can result in inundation of 
islands. Over the thousands of years they have existed on this continent, 
white pelicans have been able to cope with these natural events and 
maintain their overall population. In recent decades, however, various 
drainage, irrigation, and diversion projects, particularly in the United 
States, have resulted in the demise of some colonies.

In some years, predation may have drastic effects on a colony. In 1972, 
coyotes swam to a nesting island in Stum Lake after the young had 
hatched, and decimated the colony; only 10 young fledged from 116 nests. 
More frequently, coyotes cross to the islands on ice and cause the earliest 
nesters to abandon their nests. These birds usually re-nest successfully a 
week or two later when the ice has melted and the island is more secure.

Despite the natural losses described above, enough pelicans normally 
survive to maintain colony size, and even to permit some increase in 
numbers. Additional human-caused disturbance can, however, tip the 
scales in the other direction.

At some nesting colonies, disturbances caused by high-powered boats, 
low-flying aircraft, or people walking through colonies have caused 
serious losses, and even complete abandonment. In the panic of such an 
event, the fleeing adult pelicans often crush eggs or knock them out of the 
nest. The untended eggs or small nestlings are then quickly preyed on by 
gulls, ravens, or crows, or may die from exposure to cold rain or searing 
sun. At Stum Lake about one young reaches the flying stage for every two 
eggs laid. This is typical for American White Pelicans.

Some pelicans also die from a variety of causes during migration or while 
on their wintering grounds, including shooting, disease, adverse weather, 
or entanglement in fishing gear.

Although British Columbia’s only nesting colony of white pelicans 
appears to be holding its own, it is also evident that human-caused 
disturbances, mortality, and habitat degradation are taking their toll on 
the species across its range. Surely these magnificent birds deserve better 
treatment in future years.What is their status?Pelicans were first reported 
nesting at Stum Lake in 1939. There has been a fairly steady increase from 
about 100 nests in the early 1980s to over 400 in 1993, although numbers 
fluctuate from year to year.

The world population of the American White Pelican is estimated at about 
50 000 nesting pairs, entirely confined to North America. In the United 
States, 15 000 to 20 000 pairs nest at about 15 widely scattered colonies in 
the northern plains, Rocky Mountain states, and California, plus an 
isolated site on the Gulf Coast of Texas. The nesting range extends 
northward into Canada to include 30 000 or more nesting pairs at about 30 
colonies that are found from British Columbia to the Lake of the Woods 
area of Western Ontario.

There is little reliable information on whether the North American 
population of American White Pelicans is increasing or decreasing, 
because there has not been a continent-wide survey of all colonies in a 
single year. The total of 50 000 pairs may seem substantial, but most of 
these nest in a few large colonies which makes them especially vulnerable.

Although not included in the federal Migratory Bird Convention Act, the 
American White Pelican is protected by state and provincial wildlife laws. 
In British Columbia the species is protected against killing, capture, or 
harassment under the Wildlife Act. It is on the provincial Red List, and has 
been legally designated as an Endangered Species in British 
Columbia.What do they look like?The American White Pelican (Pelecanus 
erythrorhynchos) is unmistakeable. Its huge size (wingspan 2.4 to 3.0 
metres; weight 6 to 7 kilograms), snowy white plumage with jet-black 
wing-tips, and huge orange-yellow bill and pouch, distinguish it from all 
other species.

In flight, white pelicans are a spectacular sight. Almost always in groups, 
they fly gracefully in precisely spaced lines or “V” formations, flapping 
slowly in unison half a dozen times, then gliding, then flapping and 
gliding again. They fly with the neck held back against the shoulders, and 
the bill resting against the breast. Whooping Cranes, Snow Geese, and 
swans all fly with outstretched necks. Despite their ungainly appearance, 
white pelicans are excellent gliders and agile fliers. When leaving a 
migration rest-stop, or heading to a foraging lake from the nesting island, 
they often catch thermal air currents and soar to great heights, even 
disappearing from view. Their descent from such heights may be 
spectacular as they drop like meteors, the wind rushing with a roar 
through their half-closed wings. During normal flight, which is about 50 
kilometres per hour, every motion is easy, unhurried, and graceful.

When at rest with the wings folded, almost no black is visible. On the 
water they float with surprising buoyancy. Other characteristics of 
pelicans include a hook on the end of the upper bill, a short tail, short 
stout orange-red legs, and large webbed feet. Male and female pelicans are 
similar in appearance, although females are slightly smaller.

In late winter and spring, adult white pelicans develop a horny projection, 
roughly triangular in shape and about 4 centimetres high, on the upper 
bill. At this time they also show some pale yellow feathering on the crown 
of the head and upper breast, and the bare skin around the eye turns 
orange-yellow. These breeding season characteristics disappear in early 
summer. Juvenile white pelicans have greyish feathers during their first 
summer and autumn.

The large, naked pouch of pelicans is connected to the throat, and is very 
expandable. It is used to catch fish, as a dish from which nestlings can feed 
on regurgitated fish, and for display during courtship. It can also be 
fluttered in and out to promote cooling. Contrary to popular belief, 
pelicans do not fly with fish in their pouches.

The American White Pelican is generally a silent bird, but on the breeding 
grounds it utters low-toned grunts or subdued croaks. Sounds of 
fledglings have been described as a low “coughing, whining grunt.”How 
do they reproduce?American White Pelicans nest in colonies from a few to 
several thousand pairs, on islands in lakes, reservoirs, or large rivers. At 
Stum Lake, there are two preferred nesting islands. Colony sites are 
relatively flat, have bare ground or low plants but no dense tree or shrub 
growth, and are situated fairly close to the water but out of reach of 
waves. Islands are undoubtedly chosen because land-based predators 
cannot easily reach them.

Courtship begins immediately after arrival at Stum Lake in late April. A 
pair bond is formed when a male can successfully defend his chosen mate 
from other males. The mated pair then engage in curious rituals such as 
pouch displays and bowing, and the female selects a nest site.

Nests are about 60 cm across, and may be made of a mound of soil, plant 
material and debris with a hollow in the middle, or may merely be a 
scrape on bare ground. They are about one metre apart – just enough that 
neighbouring pelicans can’t reach each other. At Stum Lake, nests are 
scraped into shape three or four days after the pelicans arrive. Most eggs 
at Stum Lake are laid in the first 10 days of May.

White pelican eggs are large (about 9 cm long) and dull white, with a 
coarse-textured, chalky surface. They often become quite stained as 
incubation proceeds. The usual clutch is two eggs, but varies from one to 
three, with an average at Stum Lake of 1.8. Incubation takes about 30 days 
and involves both adults, which faithfully replace one another every one 
to three days.

Nesting events at Stum Lake have been delayed by a few days, or even 
weeks, in years when serious disturbance occurred during the egg-laying 
or early incubation period.

Young pelicans are naked and helpless when born, but have thick white 
down within a week. They can stand at three weeks, and leave their nests 
and congregate in juvenile groups called “pods” by their fourth week. 
While in the nest the youngsters are dutifully tended by both parents, 
which brood them in cold weather, shade them when it is hot, and guard 
against predators. The two parents exchange these duties each day. While 
one is at the nest, the other is away catching fish. 

Very small nestlings are fed liquid food from the tip of the adult’s bill. As 
the young grow they probe aggressively into the parents pouch for 
regurgitated, half-digested food. The adults show less interest in 
fledglings that have joined a pod, but both parents are kept busy bringing 
food to them at this stage, which lasts until they can fly at 7 to 10 weeks of 
age.

Young American White Pelicans may wander widely for the first two 
years of their lives, but will return to Stum Lake to nest when they are 
three years old. The maximum lifespan may reach 17 years.What do they 
eat?The American White Pelican is piscivorous (fish-eating). It doesn’t 
dive underwater like its close relative the Brown Pelican, but feeds from 
the surface on fish that live in shallow water. The diet of the white pelican 
varies considerably, but includes carp, perch, suckers, catfish, chub, and 
shiners, fish that are at home in shallow, often warm waters. Other aquatic 
animals such as frogs, salamanders, and crayfish sometimes supplement 
the pelican diet.

There is little information on pelican food habits in British Columbia. 
Bones of squawfish and sucker, fish which are abundant in shallow lakes 
where the Stum Lake birds forage, have been found at the nest site.

There are few fish in Stum Lake, and pelicans do not feed there. Instead 
they make regular flights to lakes scattered over 20 000 square kilo-metres 
of the Fraser Plateau, and up to 164 km away. Common fish in the main 
foraging lakes, in addition to squaw-fish and suckers, include shiners, 
chub, whitefish, and rainbow trout. Most feeding activity occurs in 
morning and evening hours, but night-foraging is known to occur in other 
areas, and probably occurs in British Columbia too. While at the foraging 
lakes the pelicans actually spend more time loafing than catching fish. 
This mostly involves preening and resting activities.

In British Columbia, as in other areas, white pelicans may feed 
individually or in cooperative social groups. When feeding alone they 
thrust their bill into the water and normally catch one fish at a time. This 
may be done while swimming in deep water or walking in shallows. 
Social feeding involves groups of 10 or more pelicans which form a semi-
circle facing the shore, and, with vigorous wing-flapping and splashing, 
herd schools of fish into a confined area in shallow water where they are 
easily caught. Where do they live?American White Pelicans are highly 
migratory. Those which nest at Stum Lake spend the winter in southwest 
California and the Pacific coast of Mexico, while birds from colonies on the 
Great Plains mostly winter south to Florida, the Gulf Coast, and east coast 
of Mexico.

White pelicans enroute to British Columbia begin to leave their southern 
wintering grounds in March. Most enter the province via the interior of 
Washington and move north and northwest through the Okanagan and 
Nicola valleys, and on to Alkali and Stum lakes. In spring, the birds are 
spurred on by the urge to nest, and the migration period is brief. Peak 
migration time in the Okanagan occurs between April 15 and 22; most 
pelicans arrive at Stum Lake between April 20 and 30. Flocks of 10 to 30 or 
more birds are not uncommon during spring migration.

White Pelicans have been seen in summer on 50 or more lakes scattered 
widely across the Fraser Plateau. The lakes used most regularly have 
abundant non-game fish populations, shallows suitable for catching fish, 
and safe sites for the birds to rest or “loaf” on, such as barren islands, 
sand-bars at river deltas, or logs lying in shallows around lake margins. 
The most important foraging lakes such as Abuntlet, Alkali, Chil-cotin, 
Kluskus, and Pantage mostly have average depths of 1 m or less, and have 
suitable loafing sites at them or nearby.

By mid August, the young can fly and pelicans are no longer tied to the 
nesting islands at Stum Lake. Whether they continue foraging at lakes on 
the Fraser Plateau in late August and September isn’t known, since there 
are very few autumn records of pelicans in the Cariboo-Chilcotin region. 
Most autumn (September-November) records of pelicans in British 
Columbia are from the Thompson-Okanagan region.

The autumn migration out of British Columbia seems generally to follow 
the spring route, but is more leisurely, and the flocks are smaller (usually 
less than 10 birds) and more widely dispersed. The migration through the 
Okanagan Valley extends from late August to late November. There are 
occasional autumn records for the West Kootenay, Shuswap, and south 
coast areas as well.

During migration, lakes such as Osoyoos, Skaha, and Vaseux in the 
Okanagan Valley, and Stump, Nicola, and Chapperon lakes in the Nicola 
Valley, provide temporary resting and feeding sites for white pelicans. In 
winter, pelicans from British Columbia frequent coastal bays, lagoons, and 
estuaries from central California to southern Mexico, as well as some 
inland waters in California. These migration and wintering habitats are 
extremely important for long-term survival of pelicans that nest in British 
Columbia.

Pelicans may occasionally be observed on lakes or in flight during their 
spring migration through south-central British Columbia, which is at a 
peak in the last two weeks of April. Visits to the nesting site at Stum Lake, 
in White Pelican Provincial Park, are strongly discouraged because the 
birds are easily disturbed. At some of their foraging lakes, such as Alkali 
Lake, the pelicans have become accustomed to people and passing traffic 
and may be readily observed from a respectful distance, primarily in June 
and July, without harmful disturbance.What can we do?An order to 
provide protection for the only nesting colony of American White Pelicans 
in British Columbia, Stum Lake and the immediate lands surrounding it 
were given Provincial Park Status in 1971, and named White Pelican 
Provincial Park. To provide further protection, and to heighten awareness 
of the vulnerability of this bird in the province, it was designated as an 
Endangered Species under the British Columbia Wildlife Act in 1980. 

BC Environment and BC Parks staff, with the assistance of naturalists, 
conduct annual counts, make periodic patrols to control disturbance of 
nesting pelicans by recreationists, and encourage people wishing to see or 
photograph pelicans to visit pelican foraging lakes rather than Stum Lake. 
Pilots have been advised not to fly lower than 600 m over the colony from 
May to August. Fishing, trapping, hunting and discharge of firearms are 
not permitted at Stum Lake between March 1 and August 31.

Research studies of great value for protecting and managing white 
pelicans have been carried out at Stum Lake and surrounding areas. A 
preliminary recovery plan has been prepared considering matters such as 
boating, aircraft, and firearms restrictions, enhancement and protection of 
foraging habitat, improvement of nesting islands in Stum Lake, 
prevention of predator access to the islands, and potential for starting a 
second nesting colony in the province.

BC Environment personnel have banded or colour-marked over 1000 
juvenile pelicans at Stum Lake since 1968. As band returns and sightings 
accumulate, they provide valuable information on migration routes and 
habitats, and on locations, causes, and rates of mortality of Stum Lake 
pelicans when they are outside of British Columbia.

Future management emphasis will be on protection of nesting and 
foraging pelicans and their habitat from human disturbance. This is an 
ever-increasing threat as the human population of British Columbia 
grows, logging roads creep closer to pelican lakes, and more and more 
people wish to view this intriguing species. 

Although the current status of the American White Pelican in British 
Columbia is encouraging, its long-term future is uncertain. The public is 
asked to respect the solitude that these great white birds need, and to 
support programs that will ensure they are always part of our precious 
wildlife heritage.