“A Wonderful Bird is the Pelican…”

February 28, 2022  |  Permalink

Pelican 1

We often associate pelicans with sea spray, waves and warm beaches, yet one of America’s largest and most majestic birds breeds in the American Heartland and can be seen during its winter migration on inland freshwater and coastal bays and estuaries throughout our continent.

This distinctive bird is becoming an increasingly familiar site on many of our State Park rivers and reservoirs during the winter months. Indeed, in the last decade or so it appears that their winter migration patterns are shifting ever eastward, delighting bird enthusiasts who previously had to travel further afield to see them.

Pelicans by David Haggard

Pelicans congegating at Reelfoot  Lake State Park. Photo by Ranger David Haggard

If you happen to be a newbie to bird identification, this is a great bird to start with! There is virtually nothing else you can mistake them for, and with their 9-foot wingspan, 62-inch length and a weight of nearly 20 pounds, they are easy to spot! The only flighted bird in North America that gets larger is the Trumpeter Swan, a rare winter migrant in our state that shows up occasionally. Reminiscent of a pterosaur from a bygone era, a White Pelican’s distinctive long, yellow pouched bill is adorned with an unusual bony projection during the breeding season (known as a nuptial tubercle), giving them an even more prehistoric appearance.

Pelican in Flight Mark Taylor

In flight they are also easy to identify – stark white with black edges trailing their broad wings and their necks folded back. Their flying style is effortless and gliding as they sail overhead in “V” configuration.

Pelicans Flyover

Watching them fly on a horizontal plane is to describe poetry in motion. Each follows the other in an undulating fashion, like a graceful serpent floating over the water. This formation is often referred to as a squadron.

Pelican Squadron

Preferring shallow waters, these birds dip their heads underwater to scoop up fish. They do not dive from the air like their more coastal cousins the Brown Pelicans. Contrary to portrayals in cartoons, they do not store food in their throat pouches. They typically catch schooling fish that are smaller than half their bill length, consuming up to 3 pounds per day. One interesting behavior that can be observed is their talent for fishing cooperatively in a flock. They circle around a school of fish and all dip their heads in a synchronized fashion to scoop them up, often after herding them into the shallows.

Fishing Pelicans

They are normally daytime feeders, however during the breeding season they have been known to fish under the light of the moon. While non-game fishes (i.e. carp & suckers) are their preferred food source, they are opportunistic, and have been known to eat salamanders, tadpoles and crayfish. In some regions they have begun helping themselves at aquaculture ponds and trout hatcheries, much to the chagrin of those attempting to propogate these fishes. They are also not above stealing catches from other birds, such as Double-crested Cormorants.

While their population today is relatively stable, like many bird species they suffered greatly during the widespread overuse of pesticides such as DDT throughout the mid-twentieth century. Historically, they have also been targets of persecution by humans, believing them to be major competitors for sport fish. They were shot, clubbed and their eggs destroyed during the 1920s (even in Yellowstone National Park!), which took a significant toll on their numbers. Wetland ecosystems have shrunk substantially over past several decades. Their entire population breeds in a mere 60 scattered colonies on inland waters in the Mid-Western and Western United States, as well as parts of western Canada. Because of the relatively small area used for their breeding grounds, and the uncertain future of some of these habitats, they will continue to be vulnerable to disturbance and habitat loss. They are particularly shy and skittish while nesting and will often abandon eggs and nestlings with even minimal human distrubance.Their aquatic lifestyle and foraging behaviors also make them especially susceptible to getting entangled in discarded fishing line. Because of their large size, it is very rare that they fall victim to natural predators, so it is up to us to ensure their secure future.

Swimming Pelicans

So when and where can you view these magnificent birds?

The peak times to see them are during the months of January and February, but they can still be spotted anytime from fall to spring as they move through our state.

American White Pelicans have been recorded in at least 18 of our state parks (according to submissions on ebird.org), affording most any Tennessee resident the opportunity to view these extraordinary avians during the late fall, winter and early spring months. Here are the top 10 best parks to see American White Pelicans:

  1. Reelfoot Lake State Park – this is one of the best places to view them in migration. Rangers offer pontoon boat tours to help you get a closer look and to provide great photo opportunities. Peak numbers move through from September to November.

Pelicans in Flight David Haggard

Pelicans at Reelfoot Lake State Park - Ranger David Haggard

  1. Paris Landing State Park – scan Kentucky Lake from the shore in the picnic area. They can often be seen floating on the open water or resting on the sandbar beside the Highway 79 bridge.
  2. Bledsoe Creek State Park – the small inlet of Old Hickory lake usually allows you a good look without needing a scope
  3. Booker T. Washington State Park – anywhere on Chickamauga Lake from the shoreline but the fishing pier offers a good vantage point
  4. Harrison Bay State Park – scan Chickamauga Lake anywhere from the shoreline, paying special attention to any shallow areas.
  5. Johnsonville State Historic Park – scan Kentucky Lake anywhere from the shore, especially along the Old Railway Trail

Pelicans at Johnsonville

Pelicans resting in the distance at Johnsonville State Historic Park

  1. Long Hunter State Park – they can be seen anywhere on Couchville or Percy Priest Lakes and the park encompasses lots of shoreline and viewing opportunities. Don’t forget to check out the Bryant and Baker’s Grove sections.
  2. Mousetail Landing State Park – the shallow inlets of the Tennessee River can provide good viewing opportunities
  3. Nathan Bedford Forrest State Park – scan the Tennessee River anywhere from the shoreline, but Eva Beach is a good hotspot
  4. Pickwick Landing State Park – anywhere around the dam or from the shoreline could yield pelican sightings.

Pelican in Flight

These parks also see pelicans on occasion and are definitely worth a look:

  • Seven Islands State Birding Park – scan the water and skies next to the French Broad River
  • T.O. Fuller State Park - check out the shallow inlets and open water around McKellar Lake
  • Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park – most sightings within the park are flyovers, but scanning the lakes and Mississippi River could yield pelicans on the water.
  • Fort Pillow State Historic Park – watch for flyovers and glass the Mississippi River
  • Tims Ford State Park – check the open water, coves and islands
  • Edgar Evins State Park – scan the shoreline from the boat ramp areas and peninsula beside the Courtesy Dock

Pelicans at EESP

The first American White Pelicans recorded at Edgar Evins State Park, March 2021

  • Cove Lake State Park – this park has a nice viewing platform overlooking scenic Cove Lake
  • Natchez Trace State Park – mostly flyovers recorded at Natchez, but the lakes could provide possible stopover sites

Pelican at Sunrise

Be sure to be on the lookout at other state parks (flyovers count!) whenever you visit. Some good potential parks that don’t yet have any pelican sightings recorded are: Norris Dam State Park, Big Ridge State Park, Chickasaw State Park, Panther Creek State Park, Fort Loudon State Historic Park, Harpeth River State Park, Rock Island State Park and Standing Stone State Park. If you don’t yet have an ebird account, please consider getting one. It is completely free and an invaluable way to share your bird observations wherever you go – especially in our state parks and natural areas! These submissions are not only valuable for your own birding records, they contribute to the scientific community, giving scientists a better understanding of population trends and migration patterns that can help better conserve our beloved bird species.

Pelicans at TNWR

Pelicans gathered at the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge

Other good places to view Pelicans are the Tennessee National Wildlife Refuge in West Tennessee and the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Tennessee.

So why are pelican sightings increasing in the East? Nobody knows for sure, but it could be related to their historic breeding ranges shifting east in the last 20 years.

Bird watching in our state parks is a fantastic way to help fight the winter doldrums, especially at a time when there are no crowds, no biting insects and plenty of migrating birds to be seen.

The biodiversity of our incredible state is certainly echoed in the number of bird species (423!) that can be viewed at any given place throughout the year. Watching and recording birds is an enjoyable pastime that can now serve as valuable research to help further their conservation.

Pelicans at RLSP David Haggard

Pelicans at Reelfoot Lake State Park - David Haggard

About the author


Holly Headshot

Holly Taylor got her start with Tennessee State Parks as a Seasonal Interpretive Ranger in 2006, working six years at Edgar Evins State Park before working as a wildlife presenter for the Natural History Education Company of the Mid-South. She took time off to stay at home with her son before returning to TN State Parks as the assistant to State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath in 2018. She graduated from TTU in 2009 with a B.S. in Conservation Biology and also serves as the chapter coordinator for the Cumberland Mountain Chapter of the Tennessee Naturalist Program. She has a life-long passion for the natural world and loves nothing more than sharing that passion with others.