Pelecanus erythrorhynchus

Status:  Abundant regular spring and fall migrant statewide. Rare casual breeder Cherry Co. Uncommon, locally common, regular summer visitor central and west, uncommon elsewhere. Locally rare regular winter visitor south, rare casual elsewhere.

Documentation: Specimen: UNSM ZM12393, 31 May 1959 Lincoln, Lancaster Co.

Taxonomy: No subspecies are recognized.

Changes Since 2000: Larger numbers are arriving earlier in spring and overwintering numbers continue to increase at Sutherland Reservoir in Lincoln Co, at Harlan Co Reservoir, Harlan Co, and Lake Ogallala, Keith Co.

Spring:  Feb 10, 11, 11 <<<>>> summer

Reports of early arrivals in good numbers at Harlan Co Reservoir and Calamus Reservoir, Loup Co  suggest occasional early northward movement. “Scores” were at Harlan Co Reservoir 12 Feb 2013 and as many as 300 were there by 16 Feb, and, in 2020, arrival in numbers was also early, with 30 there 10 Feb increasing to 150 by 14 Feb. In 2020, 30 arrived early at Calamus Reservoir 10 Feb and 50 were there 18 Feb.

Typically, flocks arrive in late Mar, reaching peak numbers in late Apr. Early for the location was a flock of 126 at Lake McConaughy, Keith Co 5 Mar 2005, and a late flock of 136 was there 9 Jun 2007. Although most migratory movement is completed by mid-May, small groups or occasionally individuals may remain anywhere in the state throughout summer months.

  • High counts: 3000 at Calamus Reservoir, Loup Co 6 Apr 2019, 2700 at Lake McConaughy 16 May 2003, 2390 there 28 Apr 2001, and “low thousands” at Harlan Co Reservoir 27 Mar 2013. Estimates of 1000 and 4000 were made by different observers at Calamus Reservoir, Loup Co 25 Mar 2017.

Summer: There are two instances of nesting. Mollhoff (2005) presented information from biologist Leonard McDaniel regarding egg-dumping by pelicans in Double-crested Cormorant nests at Valentine NWR, Cherry Co, 25 May 1988 (2 eggs), 2 Jun 1991 (4), and 17 May 1993 (4), and the establishment of a breeding colony of 10 platform nests 24 May 1995; the nests were abandoned 29 May. On 18 Jul 2018, 37 adults and 17 chicks about 12 days old were associated with ground-nesting Double-crested Cormorants on an island at Marsh Lakes, Valentine NWR (Richard Ernst photo, Jennifer Chiu, Melvin Nenneman); this event was at the same location as the 1995 event (fide Wayne Mollhoff).

Breeding colonies of White Pelicans are scattered throughout the northern Great Plains as well as in Wyoming and Colorado, but none are permanently established in Nebraska. A large colony exists just north of the state line at LaCreek NWR, Bennett Co, South Dakota.

Summer occurrences in the south and east are uncommon, with fewest sightings during the second half of Jun and through Jul; true migration is not evident in the south and east until early Aug.

  • High counts: 420 at Lake McConaughy 23 Jun 2002, 350-400 in Platte Co 19 Jun 2004, and 310 at Lake McConaughy 9 Jul 2001.

Fallsummer <<<>>> Dec 29, 29, 30 (away from known wintering sites)

Later dates away from known wintering sites are 1 Jan 2020 (2) Nemaha Co, 2 Jan 2018 (3) Lancaster Co, 4 Jan 2012 Buffalo Co, and 4-5 Jan 2019 Douglas Co.

Migratory movement is first seen in late Jul, although in 2015 a flock of 200 was over Spring Creek Prairie, Lancaster Co 23 Jun, and 56 at were at Branched Oak Lake, Lancaster Co two days later. Numbers generally peak in Sep, but small groups may remain into winter at certain locations.

  • High counts: 3000 in eastern Washington Co 19 Sep 2011, 3000 in Dakota Co 8 Sep 2012, and 3000 at Calamus Reservoir 2 Oct 2016.

WinterIn recent years small numbers have lingered into winter; there were no Dec reports until 1977 and no Jan reports until 1991. Some lingering birds are injured, but most are not. Sutherland Reservoir has a coal-fired power plant cooling pond that remains open throughout winter; single birds were present there 15 Feb 1992 and 19 Dec 1992, and overwintering began in 1993-94 and has continued each year since. The first high tally there was the 33 on 1 Jan 2010; up to 24 wintered 2014-2015, 29 in 2017-2018, and 33 in 2020-2021. Numbers usually dwindle during Feb, although in recent years early spring arrivals have added to the number of wintering pelicans.

Overwintering was unknown away from Sutherland Reservoir until 1999-2000, when 3-4 wintered at Harlan Co Reservoir. Wintering probably occurs there occasionally; three were present 26 Jan 2002, three were there 24 Jan 2012, and one was there 2 Feb 1997. Mid-Feb reports at Harlan Co Reservoir may be of early migrants given its southerly location. Recently, wintering has occurred at Lake Ogallala, where four were present 2003-2004, with eight on 25 Jan, and 1-5 have been present in subsequent winters. An older mid-winter sighting there was 12 Jan 1991.

Away from these locations, there is only one report of overwintering, on Salt Creek, Lincoln, Lancaster Co 2007-2008, and only these additional mid-winter reports: a “presumed sick/injured” bird was at Glenn Cunningham Lake, Omaha through 5-6 Jan 2019, an injured bird lingered in Dodge Co until 20 Jan 2012, and 13 appeared overhead at Calamus Reservoir, Loup Co 20 Jan 2018. The latter Calamus Reservoir birds may not have been wintering; the presence of 65 there as early as 1 Feb and 130 two days later suggests they were early migrants.

Comments: Conflicts between fishermen and American White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants have been an issue in recent years as these species have increased in numbers. This issue was explored by Dinan and Jorgensen (2014), who provided baseline count data for fall 2012 on these species in the Sandhills and concluded it was unlikely either species was negatively impacting sport fishing resources in Nebraska.

Federal banding returns indicate that bands taken from birds found dead in Nebraska were placed on juveniles that were produced in breeding colonies from virtually every Great Plains state and Canadian province, including Colorado, Wyoming, Ontario and Alberta, suggesting that American White Pelicans wander widely during their lives.  However, of 101 band returns, 44 were banded in North Dakota. A dead bird found on the Calamus-Loup CBC 31 Dec 2012 had been banded as a flightless juvenile at Medina, North Dakota 8 Jul 1999; co-incidentally, a 20-year-old bird found dead in Seward Co 18 Apr 2019 was banded as a chick at Medina, North Dakota 8 Jul 1999.


CBC: Christmas Bird Count
NWR: National Wildlife Refuge
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum

Literature Cited

Dinan, L.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2014. Double-crested Cormorant and American White Pelican abundance at Sandhills lakes during fall migration.  NBR 82: 73-80.

Mollhoff, W.J. 2005. The 2003-2004 Nebraska nest report. NBR 73: 15-19.

Recommended Citation

Silcock, W.R., and J.G. Jorgensen. 2021. American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchus). In Birds of Nebraska — Online.

Birds of Nebraska – Online

Updated 15 Mar 2021