White Pelicans: California's Charismatic Megafauna in the Sky

White Pelican at the Salton Sea, with breeding-season bill growth | Creative Commons photo by Alan Vernon
White pelican at the Salton Sea, with breeding-season bill growth | Creative Commons photo by Alan Vernon

Driving south along the shore of the Salton Sea this weekend, I saw an odd shimmer in the distance. It was a hazy patch in a sky already hazed with dust, an amorphous, translucent mass that folded in upon itself and then stretched out again, composed of specks almost too small to see, shifting color in places from black to white to invisible to black again: a massive flock of birds. I stopped the car to get a better look, stepped out into air heavy with the scent of orange blossoms.

The hazy patch split into two, then three. Another similar patch appeared above the southern horizon. How many birds were in this gigantic flock? 700? 1,000? This mega-flock wasn't just massive in numbers. Each of those specks had an eight- to ten-foot wingspan. This was a huge cloud of American white pelicans, the second-largest bird in North America, an aquatic bird of the California deserts.

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It was one of those moments where I wished I'd brought a better camera. My phone proved mostly inadequate to the task of capturing video into the sun, but here's a glimpse of a very small portion of the huge flock:


The American white pelican is readily distinguished from its smaller brown cousin, the only other American representative of the eight species of pelican worldwide. Brown pelicans are easy to spot along the coast, blessedly frequent after their frightening population crash 50 years ago, fishing by diving into the surf, gliding in small groups just above the water. American white pelicans don't dive for their fish, and seeing them is a less common experience in most places along the coast. When white pelicans move from one place to another, they generally do so at a considerable altitude rather than their cousins' four or five feet above sea level. Also, tellingly, brown pelicans are brown, at least on their top halves. White pelicans aren't. They're mainly white, with bold black markings on the undersides of their wings -- which color scheme explains the flock changing albedo from white to black, as the birds pivot and turn more or less in unison, flashing first top side and them underside.

White pelicans in flight | Creative Commons photo by Jeff Whitlock

Rather than diving for their fish, white pelicans scoop them up while paddling around on the surface. Birds will sometimes work together to herd fish into the center of the group for easier picking. Though fish are the main item on their diet, white pelicans will also eat invertebrates and the occasional small amphibian or bird.

With their amazing wingspan, white pelicans are made for soaring. As the massive swarm -- now above me -- folded, split, and converged again each individual bird in the flock moved its wings hardly at all. A splay of feather, a tilt of wing tip were all the massive pelicans needed to perform their aerobatics.

Soaring comes in handy for white pelicans. They're common this time of year along the California coast and in the estuary of the Colorado River, of which latter landform the landlocked Salton Sea constitutes the major open-water portion these days. But in a few weeks, each of these great white birds will pick up and head for the northern deserts of California, Nevada, Utah, and Idaho. Reaching the great relict lakes of the Great Basin -- Walker and Pyramid lakes in Nevada, the Great Salt Lake in Utah, lakes in the Klamath Basin complex in California and Oregon -- they gather on islands, mate, and rear their chicks.

Their breeding season gatherings can be far more massive even than the impressive flock above me. On Anaho Island in Nevada's Pyramid Lake -- breeding location of essentially Nevada's entire summer population of white pelicans -- as many as 21,500 birds have gathered to breed in a summer, crowding the island's 640 or so acres:

Anaho Island is one of the largest American white pelican rookeries. The one on Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake is even larger, hosting up to a fifth of the total population of the species. California's share of the breeding range used to be larger. Until 1970 or so, breeding pairs were found at Honey Lake near Susanville; now, some individuals from the Anaho Island colony will stop at Honey Lake on foraging trips, but none nest there. The birds once nested in the wetlands of the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys: land use changes forced them from the Sacramento Valley sometime after 1910, and the birds only held on in the Tulare Basin lakes until the World War II era, when the lakes ceased to exist. White pelicans bred at most of the eastern California's lakes north of Tahoe until about the same time. Breeding pairs were even observed here at the Salton Sea until 1957 or so.

Now a couple thousand pairs nest in the northeasternmost corner of the state each year, at Clear Lake and Sheepy Lake in the Klamath Basin. In essence, the American white pelican no longer qualifies as a Californian breeding bird. As in most such wildlife population declines, the root cause is our destruction of the species' habitat. For the last century and a half Californians have been draining lakes and plowing their beds for cotton and alfalfa, diverting rivers to feed thirsty cities, and in a dozen other ways infringing on the protected lake islands white pelicans need to raise their young safe from predators.

As shown rather whimsically in this imagined 19th Century satellite image of California created by Tulare County cartographer-artist Mark Clark, Old California was a chain of wetlands stretching from north to south. It wasn't just white pelicans that benefited. Birds of many species, butterflies, wildflowers, and large mammals grew out of the land's abundance to a degree that would be staggering to modern eyes.

When Lapérouse visited California in 1786 on an exploratory voyage commissioned by Louis XVI, he referred to our home as being "a land of inexpressible fertility." Two centuries later that fertility had been diverted to human use, Tulare and Owens lakes destroyed, wildflower fields plowed under, once-massive herds of elk and pronghorn reduced in numbers to a handful, the grizzlies that once ate them extirpated, and the condors who cleaned up after the grizzlies reduced to a razor-thin remnant confined in zoos. When the last wild-born condor was captured in 1987, the American white pelican inherited the title of the largest-wing-spanned wild bird in North America.

That habitat destruction hasn't stopped. The Salton Sea, last bastion of open water in the Colorado Delta region, is probably doomed. In 2018, when water "subsidies" to the Sea expire and no longer mitigate water transfers out of the basin to San Diego taps, the Sea will start shrinking dramatically. There are plans on the books to maintain habitat for migratory birds the Sea supports, including white pelicans, but those plans' price tags run into the billions of dollars, which California doesn't have. As the Sea shrinks and its remaining fish die off, white pelicans will be deprived of a crucial food source. The Sea's annual avian botulism outbreaks may grow worse as well. Eventually, the Sea will be of little more use to white pelicans than is Mono Lake, which the birds bypass on their annual migrations: hypersaline, devoid of pelican food, more or less a mirage of what might once have been suitable habitat.

The species isn't threatened: white pelicans seem to be doing well in other parts of North America. Still, as I tried to capture video of this flock with my phone, I couldn't help feeling very old, like one of those people who saw a California with grizzlies, wolves, and huge herds of pronghorn, now just holes in the landscape that was. If California does lose most of its remaining white pelicans in the next several decades, the hole they leave in the sky will be hard to fill.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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