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White pelicans make an appearance at Evergreen Lake

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By Sylvia Brockner

There have been several reports of white pelicans this spring, most on the reservoirs east of Denver and even a small flock on Evergreen Lake for part of one morning.

White pelicans are regular migrants through the area and nesting summer residents on the prairie reservoirs in eastern and northeastern Colorado. White pelicans can be seen in both spring and fall at Barr Lake and other reservoirs. They nest at Riverside Reservoir and on prairie lakes northward into the prairie provinces of Canada.

People always are surprised to see pelicans inland and usually say they thought they were only found along ocean shores. The brown pelican is found along both the Atlantic and Pacific coast, and, as we have seen recently on television, the Gulf Coast, where they are tragic victims of the BP oil spill.

The brown pelican was on the endangered species list due to its decline from toxic pesticides, hunting and development. They had just made an amazing comeback in Florida and Texas with the restrictions on these pesticides and were being seen in regular numbers along both coasts. The big oil spill will most certainly affect them and only time will tell whether they can come back again.

White pelicans were first recorded in Colorado by Aiken in 1873, however, by 1897, there were no breeding colonies known in the state. In 1962, a breeding colony was found at Riverside Reservoir and that colony has increased and done well.

White pelicans have apparently learned that nesting on inlands is the best way to have a successful nest. They are ground-nesting birds and therefore very susceptible to predators.

Racoons are particularly destructive for they eat both eggs and small young. By nesting on an island, this can be avoided, for raccoons either can’t or don’t like to swim.

A few years ago, a great number of white pelicans were found dead at a big colony in North Dakota. It was at first a great mystery as to what caused this destruction of eggs, young and old, on their nest site. It was finally decided that this tragedy was the result of a severe hail storm.

Birds’ bones are very fragile since they are hollow and very thin so they are light enough to fly. A severe hail storm with golf ball-sized hail could destroy any uncovered eggs as well as kill young and adult birds if hit on the head or break bones if they were sitting or flying.

So, hail was he cause of the high death toll. This colony is slowly recovering toward its former size and surely by now there is more than one colony in Northeastern Colorado.

White pelicans are so clumsy when on the ground that it is difficult to believe they are the same birds when in the air. They fly in flocks, each bird perfectly synchronized with each other. Their white plumage is accented by black wing tips glistening in the sun. With perfect coordination, they circle higher and higher until they look like confetti against the blue sky. They are master flyers and seem to enjoy these flights. This must be a respite for them after sitting on eggs in the hot sun all day.

They are known to make 100-mile round trips to find fish to feed their young. They eat carp and since Barr Lake has a plentiful supply of these big fish, white pelicans are often seen there.

While most people think of the brown pelicans they have seen in Florida or along the southern Atlantic coast, our white pelicans are quite different. White pelicans usually are loners except during breeding season and at night roosts. However, white pelicans have learned that cooperation brings better fishing results.

The lone brown pelican dives from the sky headfirst into the water to capture its meal. The white pelicans swim together to force a school of small fish toward shore. Once they have cornered them in shallow water, they scoop them up with their huge pouchy beaks.

If you have never seen a white pelican, it is worth a special effort to see these grand birds. Watch for them this fall or next spring as they migrate through the area. Or visit Riverside Reservoir in Weld County this summer and watch for any flocks of snowflakes spiraling in the blue Colorado sky.