The Real Snowbirds
Updated: Jun 9, 2022
Let's talk about snowbirds! Well, the wildlife kind not the human kind. These are possibly the most well-known snowbirds in Florida, the American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, which means "the red-billed pelican" from Greek). They nest in large colonies around large lakes/estuaries out west and as far north as Alberta in the spring and summers, and then travel south around October to their wintering grounds in Florida and around the Gulf and Caribbean coast all the way down to South America.
Now these white pelicans are absolutely gargantuan birds. Their wingspan can measure up to 10 feet long, or about as large as a full grown bull shark. In fact, the only bird in North America that has a longer wingspan is the endangered California condor. While the condors use their massive wings to soar, the pelicans use them to help power their huge bodies over the thousands of miles between summer feeding grounds and winter breeding grounds in Florida. They can weigh up to thirty pounds (!), which is a lot of weight to try and keep up in the air, so the massive wings help create enough lift to allow them to travel these long distances without plummeting to Earth like a feathered meteorite.
We also have another species of pelican in Florida, and that is the brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis). They are actually the smallest species of pelican in the world, with an average wingspan of about 6 feet and only averaging about 7-8 pounds in bodyweight. Since they are non-migratory, living in Florida year-round, and don't fly as high and far as the white pelicans do, they don't need wings as large. They typically stay closer to shore and can often be seen along our beaches acrobatically gliding right over the water's edge. You can also see in this photo from Save Our Seabirds in Sarasota just how miniscule the brown pelican looks when standing next to its white pelican counterpart.
While these birds are both relatively closely related to each other, they have drastically different feeding behaviors. Let's compare them to airplanes: with their massive wings and hulking body, the white pelicans are like a cargo plane. If they are cargo planes, the brown pelicans are more like fighter jets. The white pelicans slowly float through the water and use their bill and pouch to try and grab small schooling fish swimming below them. In fact, they will often work together, forming a school so that they push the fish toward each other to ensure their mutual success. Brown pelicans are a *little* more active in their feeding: they hover over the water until they spot a school of baitfish, and then dive bomb into the water face first to catch them. You've likely seen this behavior if you've spent time around the water in Florida. Their smaller bodies are what allow them to perform this Evel Knievel-esque hunting strategy. If a 30 pound white pelican tried to dive into the water at the same speeds, they would hit the water with such force that it would likely shatter every bone in their body and kill them on impact.
Once the pelicans catch a pouchful of fish, they need to drain the water away before being able to swallow their meal. They will slightly open their bills to allow the water to drain, but this does occasionally mean some fish may escape as well. If you are ever watching hunting pelicans, look for smaller birds like gulls flocking to them after they catch their fish, oftentimes even landing on them to try and annoy/distract them in allowing more fish to escape out of their pouch. These smaller birds will then opportunistically pick off those escapees to feed themselves. This fascinating behavior of one species opportunistically stealing a meal that another predator already caught is known as "kleptoparasitism"."
Both species of pelicans in Florida were decimated in the mid 20th century by poaching, widespread drainage of wetlands, and especially by use of pesticides like DDT that drastically lowered their nesting success. However, due to adoptions of much stronger environmental policies in this country, especially in the late 60's and 70's, pelicans have had a remarkable rebound over the course of just a few decades, showing that conservation DOES work and we CAN save endangered species if we take the right steps.