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  • Shannon Carnevale

Gentle Giants of the Sky: American White Pelicans

As our holiday seasons come to a close, Polk County residents and visitors are treated to a spectacular natural event: the arrival of American white pelicans. These majestic birds, easily distinguishable from their coastal cousin the brown pelican, are a remarkable sight as they gracefully navigate the skies above Polk County’s many lakes. 

UF/IFAS Photo by Eric Zamora

These large water birds, protected under the Migratory Bird Act, are here for a winter respite and do not breed during their stay in Florida. 


American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) are migratory, visiting Florida during the winter months. They are usually found along the coast but can also been seen around Florida’s inland lakes, rivers, and wetlands. In Polk County, you’ll see them soaring in the sky, at Circle B Bar Reserve, around the Winter Haven Chain of Lakes, and in lakes all around Lakeland, Lake Wales, and more. 

The earliest American White Pelicans often arrive by late November or mid-December, with their presence peaking January through March, locally. This timing is easy to remember, like many of our friends and family who live up north in the summer, the white pelicans can be thought of as Florida’s other snowbirds! 


One of the most notable characteristics of these winter visitors is their almost complete silence, a stark contrast to the more vocal cormorants and anhinga often seen in their company. This silent demeanor adds to the serene beauty of the lakes they inhabit. 


American white pelicans are one of our largest water birds in North America. Their bodies are thick, with short square tails, large bills, and short legs. Mostly white, they have a distinctive yellow-orange bill and black flight feathers on the underside and tips of their wings, making them easily identifiable from afar or while in flight . When in flight, you’ll often see them in a “flying V” pattern, soaring in large circles looking for suitable areas to feed.

Unlike the brown pelicans we’re all familiar with, who are known for their dramatic diving feeding technique, American white pelicans employ a more cooperative hunting strategy. Together in large groups, they herd fish into shallow areas of the lake where they will take turns rowdily dipping their large bills in to scoop up some fish. This makes for an impressive display of teamwork and grace.

You may notice a vertical plate or “horn” on the top of some of the pelicans’ bills. This is called a “breeding plate” and it is thought to be a visual indicator of a healthy male pelican, like how we think a larger rack of antlers signifies a better breeder in deer. While we’ll never fully understand some physical traits present during the breeding season in many species, one thing is clear: The plate is not a deformity, and the pelican is healthy; there is no need to be alarmed or to contact an animal rescue or Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission if you see one.


When American white pelicans leave Florida, they embark on a northward migration that leads them primarily to the northern Great Plains. Their summer breeding grounds are generally on isolated islands in freshwater lakes and on ephemeral islands in shallow wetlands.

These pelicans typically breed in states such as North Dakota, South Dakota, Northern California, Nevada, Wyoming, Minnesota, and parts of Canada, favoring remote areas away from human disturbance. The habitat types ideal for their breeding include large, open landscapes like prairies and marshes next to lakes and rivers. 

If you’re planning a summer vacation in the northern Great Plains, particularly in areas like the Dakotas or Minnesota, you might be fortunate enough to see these majestic birds in their natural breeding habitat. Here, they engage in their unique life cycle amidst the vast and scenic backdrop of America’s heartland. Keep in mind though, these are shy birds and will often abandon their nests if disturbed. 


This January, take the time to visit local natural areas or waterways to see the American White Pelicans. They will start heading north in March and have often completely left us by the end of April. But remember, nature doesn’t always abide by our rules! The pelicans may leave early or stay late – so enjoy them when you see them. 

You can help both American white pelicans and our resident brown pelican by keeping a close eye on fishing tackle when you’re out fishing. Entanglement in fishing line and bill or pouch disfigurement from errant hooks and lures are some of the greatest threats facing pelicans and water birds of all species in Florida. 

Protection and restoration of area lakes and wetlands is important to both the American white pelican and our other water birds and wildlife. As I have mentioned in earlier articles, prioritizing our wetlands and lakes takes a village. 

When enjoying recreational activities like boating, be mindful not to disturb these graceful and shy visitors. They scare easily and you may prevent their return to an area lake if they are disturbed often. By protecting our lakes and respecting wildlife, we ensure that future generations will also enjoy the stunning spectacle of the American White Pelicans in Florida.  

For more information on American white pelicans consider listening to the podcast episode, “American White Pelicans, Florida’s Other Snowbird” here: And, if you enjoy the episode, share it with a friend. 


As a reminder, you can always find me on social media with the handle @PolkNR on Twitter/X and Instagram or you can email me with any questions at UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.


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