People unacquainted with birding might be surprised to see pelicans in the arid and semi arid Western states. The most familiar Brown Pelican of the Gulf Coast dives for its food in salt water and most often comes to mind when pelicans are mentioned. But the American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is quite different and a wonderful surprise on the reservoirs and lakes of Colorado.

This large snow-white bird is 50″–70″ long with black wing tips that can span up to 110″ (9ft.), their feet are orange, and webbed not only between the four front toes but also between the second toe and the inwardly directed back toe. They have very short legs. Unlike their Brown Pelican cousins that dive spectacularly into the water after fish, White Pelicans, with their wide, flat, bills and big orange pouches, scoop food from both fresh and salt water sources while swimming, straining about four pounds of fish, salamanders, frogs and aquatic invertebrates each day.

A very social group, they arrive at nesting sites from Salt Lake City to Alberta, Canada, in the spring, grouping their nests together in colonies. Both sexes prominently display their bright orange bills during courtship rituals that include bowing, strutting and short flights and the male develops a fibrous bump on the upper part of the beak – a unique characteristic of the white pelican.

Egg laying in a shallow depression on the ground begins in mid-May and both adults tend two or three large, chalky white eggs that hatch about a month later. Leaving before freeze-up in late fall, they migrate mainly to the Gulf of Mexico coast for the winter. Natural life span is 12 – 14 years. Habitat loss is the biggest threat to successful nesting and includes changing water levels due to drought, irrigation and recreational use. Disturbance of breeding sites by humans or industrial activity may cause birds to abandon an entire nesting colony, leaving eggs and young chicks to be trampled or exposed to harsh weather and predators like coyotes, ravens, and gulls as well as entanglement in fishing lines, boating activity and poaching. American White Pelicans are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

When to look for American White Pelicans:
Although they may be spotted during spring and fall migration, summer is the best time to look for pelicans in Colorado. Occasionally, they will spend the winter on open water in lakes and reservoirs.

Where to look for American White Pelicans – try these Colorado Birding Trail Sites for White Pelican Viewing:

Headwaters TrailFrantz Lake
North ParkWalden Reservoir
Plover TrailJohn Martin Reservoir State Park
Pronghorn TrailHolbrook Reservoir State Wildlife Area
Snow Goose Trail – Neenoshe Reservoir State Wildlife Area
Spanish Peaks TrailTrinidad Lake State Park
St. Vrain TrailMcIntosh Lake
Whitewater TrailPueblo Reservoir Area

These magnificent birds have nested at Antero Reservoir in Park County, McFarlane Reservoir in Jackson County, and Riverside Reservoir in Weld County. A non-breeding semi-permanent population spends the summer at San Luis Lake in Alamosa County in the San Luis Valley.

You may see American White Pelicans at Lathrop State Park on the Spanish Peaks Trail of the Colorado Birding Trail, but a Brown Pelican actually spent the summer there, once. There are only a handful of records of the Brown Pelican in Colorado.