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American white pelicans rest and feed earlier this month on the Illinois River. These birds pass through Illinois each spring on their way to nesting grounds farther north and again in the fall as they head south for winter.
NewsTribune photo/Chris Yucus
The pelican brief
I.D. — White pelicans have large yellow-orange bills and long black-and-white wings. Only snow geese and whooping cranes show this wing pattern. But snow geese are much smaller and whooping cranes are rare and extend their long necks in flight.
Eat fish — White pelicans cooperatively corral fish before scooping them up with their huge bills equipped with pouches. They are considered a nuisance by the fish farming industry.
Big bird — They are one of our largest birds, 6 feet from bill to tail, a 9-foot wingspan, weighing up to 20 pounds.
On the nest — Like many water birds, white pelicans nest in colonies. The first record of white pelicans nesting in Illinois was in 2009 on the Mississippi River near the Iowa border.
They are not swans, geese, gulls or albino eagles. They are not the New Orleans Pelicans or lost birds from Florida.
American white pelicans are making their annual spring migration north through Illinois. These large, white birds are eye-catching in flight over the Illinois River, pleasing birdwatchers.
They also provoke amusement and confusion. This week a reader called in a tip about swans near the Route 251 bridge over the Illinois River — a very reliable location to see pelicans in recent days. Swans migrated earlier.
More confusion reigned on Twitter.
“So I guess we have pelicans in Normal Illinois #TheMoreYouKnow,” from Ryan Hevrdejs @RHevrdejs.
“I live in a town in Illinois why the #### are ####### pelicans in our lake this isn’t an ocean go home r u drunk,” from awkotaco @MOISTURIZIAM.
Pelicans generate a lot of questions from visitors at Starved Rock State Park, said Tom Williams, Starved Rock Foundation volunteer.
“Very much so because people don’t expect to see pelicans around here,” Williams said. “Pelicans are supposedly ocean birds.”
White pelicans winter on the coasts but go north to nest on islands in lakes and large rivers in Canada, the Great Plains and western mountain states. They migrate spring and fall through the Midwest.
When the birds showed up in late March on the Illinois River, Utica IL @UticaIL tweeted: “Great White American Pelicans at Starved Rock S.P. and the Illinois River. A sign of spring. Most of them will be here through April.”
The tweet accompanied a photo by Jacki Pienta of McNabb, who works at Starved Rock Lodge and is an avid birdwatcher and photographer.
“They migrate through and they’re a wonderful looking bird and they are so great to watch as they feed,” Pienta said. “They’re comical in the way they act.”
Many presume pelicans belong in the coastal states, not Illinois.