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Big gulper

Maybe you’ve seen American white pelicans gracefully soaring overhead or resting on the shore of a river or lake in large white groups. They are one of the largest birds in North America, weighing 10 to 20 pounds with wingspans around 5 feet long.

I never used to see the birds in Montana when I was younger. The pelicans’ populations dropped off in the 1960s, likely due to the use of pesticides that also resulted in the decline of other birds like bald eagles and ospreys.

But now it seems pelicans are everywhere, with estimates of 500 to 4,000 pairs in Montana.

According to the Montana Field Guide, there are two distinct populations of American white pelicans that visit the state in the summer to mate and nest. One flies as far south as the Pacific Coast of Central America, crossing over the top of the Continental Divide. The other wings north from the Gulf of Mexico and Florida. The Pacific Coast birds tend to hang out around Western Montana at places like Canyon Ferry Reservoir. The eastern birds can be found at Bowdoin and Medicine Lake national wildlife refuges.

During the breeding season, adults will grow a strange horn on the front of their bill. Their legs also turn more orange. They nest on islands away from predators like foxes and coyotes, laying two eggs. Often, the first bird to hatch will kill its brother or sister in order to increase its chances of surviving.

With large bills that can hold about 5 gallons of water, the pelicans will swim along — sometimes herding small fish in the shallows. By dipping the big bills underwater they can scoop up the fish and then lean their head back to drain out the water. An adult pelican can eat about 4 pounds of fish a day. Most of the fish the pelican eat are rough fish, like carp and suckers.

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Pelicans can live a long time, 15 to 20 years. There’s even been a sighting of a blind pelican being fed and helped by his fellow birds.

Hunting American white pelicans is not allowed, even though their populations have climbed back from very low numbers in the 1960s.

— Brett French,

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