An American White Pelican in Action

While photographing at the Sandtown Causeway in the Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge last week, I had the incredible luck of capturing a photo of an American White Pelican. As I watched a group of these large waterbirds swimming along the shoreline, one individual suddenly threw its head back, opening its massive orange beak wide.

The American White Pelican's Extraordinary Beak
The American White Pelican’s Extraordinary Beak

The Unparalleled Beauty of the American White Pelican’s Beak

The American White Pelican has one of the most unique beaks in the avian world. The beak itself is long, flat, and vivid orange in color throughout both upper and lower mandibles. It measures about 11.3–15.2 inches in males and 10.3–14.2 inches in females. The blood vessels in their bill also help regulate temperature, which is crucial since these water-loving birds spend a great deal of time in chilly waters even during frigid winters. But what really makes it stand out is the additional large pouch of orange skin attached to the lower half. This capacious, expandable pouch can hold up to 3 gallons of water along with the fish inside! It allows the pelican to scoop up copious amounts of fish and water in one go, making feeding extremely efficient.

The Art of Efficient Feeding

I photographed the precise moment when this majestic bird fully extended its specialized bill. In my photo, you can see something solid pressing against the bottom inside of the pelican’s pouch.

American White Pelicans primarily feed on fish that congregate in large schools, including shad and sunfish. Though they typically don’t dive below the water like Brown Pelicans, they’ve developed an incredibly effective feeding technique of forming groups to corral fish into the shallows where they can gulp them up with ease.

A Glimpse into Avian Ingenuity

Sometimes up to 1,000 White Pelicans may feed communally in this manner, using their bodies all together in an amazing display of choreography to drive fish exactly where they want them to maximize the efficiency of every scoop. It’s no wonder their bizarre bill has developed such unique adaptions to this strategy.

As a wildlife photographer, I’m grateful for these glimpses into the ingenious daily lives of remarkable avian species, like the non-breeding American White Pelican. It’s moments like these that make every chilly morning and patient wait absolutely worthwhile.

Image Information:

  • Camera: Canon EOS R5
  • Lens: Canon RF 800mm f/11
  • Location: Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma
  • Date and Time Taken: November 27, 2023 (11:00 A.M.)
  • Program Mode: Manual
  • Aperture: f/11 (Fixed)
  • Shutter Speed: 1/2000 sec
  • ISO: 500 (Auto)
  • Exposure Comp: -0.7
  • Focal Length: 800mm

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