American White Pelican’s Unexpected Pastime

Yesterday I shared an image of an American White Pelican I photographed at the Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma with its large beak wide open [An American White Pelican in Action]. Today’s photo captures some interesting behavior – this Pelican swimming around with a small object gripped in its bill that it proceeded to toss around repeatedly.

An American White Pelican at Play
An American White Pelican at Play?

Based on the size and shape, I believe it may have been a small root ball. The Pelican would grab it in its bill, throw it up in the air, catch it again, sometimes drop it in the water, retrieve it, and then resume its game of throwing and catching. This went on for several minutes before the bird ultimately left the object behind in the water and returned to a group of other Pelicans.

American White Pelican Tossing Something
American White Pelican Tossing Something

American White Pelicans are known for their feeding strategy of catching fish in the pouches under their bills by dipping their heads underwater. They’ll catch and immediately swallow fish whole. There have been observations of Pelicans seeming to play with caught fish before consuming them. However, I couldn’t find reference to them doing this with non-food items like what I witnessed.

To me, this Pelican’s behavior appeared to be akin to play. It seemed to be having fun just tossing this thing around haphazardly with no intention of eating it. I was delighted to capture this moment of a Pelican entertaining itself with a game of throw and catch. It makes me wonder how much time birds spend engaging in play when they aren’t busy feeding or defending territory. Moments like this certainly bring these amazing creatures to life even more for me!

Image Information:

  • Date: 11/28/23
  • Time: 10:13 AM
  • Camera: Canon EOS R7
  • Lens: Canon RF 800mm F11
  • ISO: 1000
  • Aperture: 11
  • Shutter: 1/2000
  • Exp. Comp.: -1.0
  • Lens (mm): 800
  • Program Mode: Manual

2 thoughts on “American White Pelican’s Unexpected Pastime”

  1. I never realized birds engaged in play. But that is exactly what he was doing! Play time is also training even for us.

  2. Steve, based on this pelican’s plumage and bill color, I would say that this is a hatch-year bird. For young pelicans, and other birds, this type of play may be a learning experience for them. Fascinating images and behavior.

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