Once threatened pelicans now thriving in Washington

An adult male American white pelican shows off his “breeding horn” at the Walla Walla River delta.

An adult male American white pelican shows off his “breeding horn” at the Walla Walla River delta.

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With June having melted away and a very hot July now upon us, I would like to share the story of a very interesting marine animal we share this region with.

But first I want to let you know that a special bird migration gets under way this week nearby at Lake Abert near Lakeview in southern Oregon. In one of the most spectacular natural events in the interior Pacific Northwest, more than 100,000 Wilson’s phalarope (fal-a-rope) will arrive on the north shore of Lake Abert. This desert lake is saline and teeming with brine shrimp and salt flies — all the better to feed the phalarope and hundreds of thousands of other migrating shorebirds, including sandpipers, curlews and godwits.

There are many great natural events going on right now here in the Walla Walla Valley, too. The emergence of the winged termites, the blooming of the buckwheats, elegant clarkia, spotted coralroot orchids and the new bright growth along the fringes of the grand fir boughs. The explosion in numbers of butterflies, bees, moths and dragonflies. Baby birds everywhere and fawns by the dozen.

So let’s visit just one of the very interesting animals that live here: the American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorbynchos), which is native to the west and east into the Mississippi River drainage. This huge fish-eating bird has a wingspan of 108 inches and a body that is 62 inches long from the tip of the bill to the tail.

These graceful fliers were once in trouble due to constant shooting and nesting ground harassment by humans. They were placed on the threatened species list here in Washington state and remain under that protection. White pelicans once nested on Moses Lake up until the late 1930s when their colonies were constantly harassed by boaters. They abandoned the area and did not nest again in Washington until 1993.

This nesting took place out on Badger Island on the Columbia River in Western Walla Walla County. The pelicans were first documented as a wintering species in 1983 around the Walla Walla River delta. That was a major “El Nino” year, and the weather phenomenon may have driven them to our area.

Today they nest on Badger Island, which is protected and off limits to boaters. These piscavores are nocturnal feeders and they use the shallow waters of the delta to drive schools of small carp, bullheads, perch and bass to where they can scoop them up into the great orange pouches of their bills. The pelicans are not a threat to salmon and steelhead smolt.

These birds now winter below the Snake and Columbia River dams, where they are opportunistic feeders on dead and injured fish that are whacked by the turbines in the dams. The pelicans watch the gulls below the dams, and if they see a group trying to grab fish being carried downstream by the fast-flowing current they will fly over and grab those fish that are below the reach of the gulls, regardless of fish species.

These great pelicans are colonial nesters. Once their chicks are hatched and able to walk around, they are herded into big groups where several adults watch out for them as their parents look for food. The chicks are a naked pink and gray with a thin layer of downy fuzz on them. They grow very rapidly and soon gain their flight feathers.

The adult males develop a “breeding horn” starting in late January. It looks as if it grows up out of a crack in the top of the bill and can reach 5 inches high and 4.5 inches wide. This horn is to impress the females and is used in displays by the males. After the breeding season is over this horn and the plate it grows on simply sloughs off and is lost much like a deer’s antlers.

The next time you see these big American birds drifting in lazy loops in the sky, watch them as they ride a thermal up higher and higher.

Remember, life is good!

Mike Denny is president of the Blue Mountain chapter of the National Audubon Society. He can be reached at m.denny@charter.net., or by calling weekdays between 6-8 p.m. at 529-0080.

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