Pelicans are huge. Few birds are bigger; some of those that are can’t fly.

White pelicans can fly — beautifully, in fact. Gracefully, even. Their wing spread is from 8 to 9 1/2 feet. Your “wingspread” approximates your height, dear reader: For just a moment contemplate a 9-foot arm spread. White pelican bodies aren’t tiny either; including their bills, they range from 50 to 70 inches in length.

About those bills. Also big, long and straight, verging on the enormous, with a naked skin-pouch that hangs below. The white pelican’s bill can hold up to three gallons of water and fish. Yes, Virginia, that indeed is more than its belly can. The bird will hold its catch in his pouch, then squirt excess water from the corners of its mouth, and, finally, swallow. This unusual pouch acts in this way as a dip net and also is a mechanism to cool the bird in hot weather. Birds, and your cat or dog, pant for identical reasons: They can’t sweat.

White pelicans are part of the spring and summer scenery of our region. Unlike their cousins, brown pelicans, they are birds of the inland West. Locally, they breed on Yellowstone Lake. Some non-breeding birds summer on Jackson Lake and on Palisades Reservoir. They float buoyantly on the water, and they often float on the air. They can soar without apparent effort until they can’t be seen by a person’s unaided eye. Sometimes they soar beyond binocular range if the observer is on the valley floor. A couple of mountaineers have told me that sometimes they needed binoculars to locate groups of pelicans above them as they, the climbers, were on top of the Grand Teton.

White pelicans are often, if not ordinarily, seen in groups. They are gregarious birds, colonial nesters. One, two, four or five are encountered in early spring, as now, when the birds move up and down the Snake River. Waiting for ice out on Jackson Lake and, especially, on Yellowstone Lake. A good proportion sport an orange “keel” on their upper bills, indicating they are of breeding age.

White pelicans eat fish, and a little other aquatic fare. They don’t dine, but they scoop fish up and out of the water. Often, they practice cooperative fishing, swimming together in a circle or semi-circle to corral their prey. Where “less desirable” fish are present — carp, catfish, silverside, shiners — they seem to be the preferred catch; perhaps they school more and are less cautious than game fish are.

Ahem. Don’t you just enjoy it somewhere deep inside when some creature assumes grace and creates beauty in its element? A buffalo calf in its first weeks of life; that moment when a swan — or pelican — waddles with ungainly gait and enters the water; a fish flaring away from a sudden shadow; a raven turning to fly upside down just for the joy of it all. A white pelican barging across the water in its take-off to become a precise and majestic instrument of flight.

— Originally printed in the May 4, 1995 Jackson Hole News

Field notes: Lorie Kahn and Doug Brown reported ruby-crowned kinglets and three red-naped sapsuckers April 25 at Cottonwood Creek. Loons made a welcome appearance on April 27 at the water treatment plant, noted by Karl Brown. Loons were also spotted by Sarah Walker at the Oxbow.

Karl Brown reported wood ducks in South Park, as did and Tim Griffith. A distinct absence of feeder birds was explained on April 29 when Mary Lohuis saw a Cooper’s hawk perched on her lower deck rail.

All three species of hummingbirds have returned to the valley. Nancy Collister had a memorable encounter with one as she re-hung her feeders one early morning. The hummer was awaiting her and sat on her hand as she hung the feeder. Ron Gessler welcomed a broad-tailed hummingbird.

Susan Patla reported the first Say’s phoebe documented in Teton Valley. Susan also reported a singing house wren, drumming ruffed grouseStellar’s jay, Clark’s nutcracker, red-breasted nuthatch, Townsend’s solitaire, evening grosbeak, Cassin’s finch, chipping sparrow, green-tailed towhee, spotted towhee, orange-crowned warbler and yellow-rumped warbler in Teton Valley.

Sue Mortenson reported a breeding green-winged teal in a slough south of town. Connie Weineke photographed a green-tailed towhee in her yard.

Susan Marsh reports that while sitting on the back deck around 6:30 p.m., she noticed chickadees were going nuts in a nearby spruce. A sharp-shinned hawk came out of the tree and landed on the deck railing, maybe 10 to 15 feet away from its viewers. The hawk was injured with what looked like a chest wound. It was clearly unwell. Hope it recovered before flying off before dark.

Susan Patla is heading up the Annual Migratory Bird Survey, which starts at 8 a.m. Saturday at the South Park feedground haysheds. It is free and open to all.

Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature. Contact him at

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