One of America’s Largest Birds Visits the Fox River Valley

On one recent cloudy, cold and blustery Friday morning, I received a text from a friend telling me that there was a flock of pelicans on the Fox River near the observation platform overlooking the Fox River in the far northeastern corner of the Hoover Forest Preserve in Yorkville, Illinois.  Having the day off, I grabbed my camera and made the relatively short trip down to Hoover as quickly as I could to try to get some pictures of the birds.  I was hoping they would still be there when I arrived!  I didn’t have to worry as the small flock of about forty of the magnificent American White Pelicans was still hunkered down on the river, shielding themselves from the cold winds.

I Thought I Saw a Pelican…

 Even in their relatively dormant state, these birds are an incredible sight to behold; this was a first for me, seeing them on the Fox River in the Hoover Forest Preserve. Previously, over the last 15 years or so I have seen large flocks of them on the Illinois River above the dam at Starved Rock. This sighting was during their annual migration between the Gulf Coast and the northern United States and Canada, in most spring and fall seasons. In the last several years, I have also noticed flocks of them flying above the Fox River heading north in the spring and have also seen reports of them rafting on the river from locales like Oswego, Batavia, Algonquin and the Chain of Lakes.

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A flock of about forty American White Pelicans raft on the Fox River at
Hoover Forest Preserve in Yorkville, Illinois.  (March 25, 2022)

Huge Birds!

A review of the vital statistics of the American White Pelican reveals that these birds are among the very largest birds on the North American continent!  The adult birds can be from four to five feet long from the tip of their unusual beak to the tip of their tail; they have a wingspan of from eight to ten feet, and weigh from between ten and thirty pounds!  A truly massive and spectacular bird!  Their plumage is primarily a brilliant snow-white with black feathers bordering their wings that are visible when the big birds fly.   Speaking of flying, these huge birds are true masters of the air and are beautifully graceful in flight.  During breeding season, both males and females have strange “bumps” on their beaks known as breeding tubercles.  The function of these tubercles is unknown.  They fall off after the birds nest.  Also, the pelicans have brilliant orange-red legs and feet during the breeding season that turn more yellowish after nesting.  While the birds primarily pass through our region of the country in the spring traveling from their wintering territory along the Gulf Coast to their breeding grounds in the far northern United States and Canada, there are a very few reports of the birds setting up breeding populations in southwestern Illinois, northern Iowa, and along the Mississippi River in Iowa and Wisconsin.

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An American White Pelican swims in the Fox River at the Hoover Forest Preserve in Yorkville, Illinois (March 26, 2022). This profile view gives us a good view of the unusual bump growths on the top of the bird’s beak. These bumps are known as breeding tubercles that both males and females of the species have during the breeding season. Once the birds lay their eggs, the tubercles fall off.
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Here, an American White Pelican shows of its gorgeous plumage as it flies above the Fox River at Hoover Forest Preserve on March 26, 2022. This view also shows the breeding tubercles on its bill and the orangish color of its legs and feet, typical of the birds breeding coloration.

More Frequent Migrants Along the Fox River

The eBird website maintained by Cornell University shows the Fox River Valley area to be in the region where American White Pelicans are uncommon migrants.  Our area lies in the far eastern end of the pelicans’ migratory range.  Anecdotal observations though seem to show that American White Pelicans are becoming more common visitors along the Fox River.  That’s really good news for those of us who reside in the area as it gives us an opportunity to view and photograph these unusual birds locally.

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A large adult American White Pelican stretches his wings among a group of birds rafting on the Fox River.

Their beaks hold more than their belly can…

American White Pelicans feed on fish and crustaceans, scooping them up along with up to five gallons of water with their large, pouched bills.  After scooping up the fish and crustacean filled water, they point their bills skyward to let the water drain out while swallowing their prized morsels   I observed several of the flock on the river feeding, which was another very interesting sight to see!  The day after I initially saw them was a sunnier, slightly warmer day that seemed to trigger more activity among the birds like feeding and moments of flying around the area of the river that they were rafting on.  As of this writing (April 2), over a week after the initial sighting of the birds at Hoover, they are still in the area!  It’s reported that American White Pelicans take their time on their northward migration in the spring, dawdling in areas that they find favorable along the way.  During the fall migration, they are reported to be more interested in getting back south fast…lol. 

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An American White Pelican in the process of swallowing his catch from the Fox River
in the Hoover Forest Preserve, Yorkville, Illinois (March 26, 2022).
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An American White Pelican swimming and feeding on the Fox River,
Hoover Forest Preserve, Yorkville, Illinois (March 26, 2022).

Perhaps you’ve been out along the river and have seen some huge white birds rafting on the water or flying over the river and thought “That looked like a pelican!”  You’d be right!  If you haven’t seen any yet, now may still be the time where you have an opportunity to observe them along the Fox River for yourself!

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An American White Pelican flying from one raft of birds to another on the Fox River,
Hoover Forest Preserve, Yorkville, Illinois. (March 28, 2022).

Until next month, enjoy the reawakening spring brings along our beautiful Fox River!

All photos by Tom Schrader