American White Pelican

provided by Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife
photos by Stewart Ting Chong

The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) is a native seabird that, unlike brown pelicans, migrate to Florida during the winter months. They are usually found along the coast of Florida and in lakes, rivers, and wetlands. Pelicans primarily eat fish including herring, mullet, grass minnows, silversides, and other small to medium-size fish. White pelicans float on the surface of the water, ready to scoop fish into their mouths. As the pelican lifts its head, water drains out of their pouch, and the bird gulps down the fish. White Pelicans can hold up to three gallons of water in their bill pouches. Oftentimes, white pelicans can be seen to working together to herd fish and dip in their heads all at once to scoop up food. Pelicans use the updrafts of winds to fly up to 3,000 meters (10,000ft), and are known to travel distances up to 93 miles to reach feeding areas. Interestingly enough, the American White Pelican is the second largest bird in North America with an average wingspan of nine feet.

A fun fact about pelicans, regardless of color, is that they do not have nostrils- they must breathe through their beaks. This is especially important to know when rescuing or treating a pelican. Rescuers and veterinarians must be sure to prop the beak open with their fingers so the animal can breathe while being safely handled. White pelicans are typically about twice as large as brown pelicans, measuring at approximately four feet tall. They are entirely white except for their black-edged wings. They have a long neck, an orange bill, and short orange legs with webbed feet.

On December 7th, an adult white pelican (#21-6100) was admitted from Sanibel (Ding Darling) after it was witnessed dragging its body and acting lethargic. Veterinarians suspect the pelican was suffering from algal bloom toxicity, also known as red tide poisoning or brevetoxicosis. Red tide consists of microscopic algae producing toxins which often kill fish, make shellfish dangerous to eat, and affect wildlife and humans alike. These algae blooms can spread so far they can be seen from space. Sea and shore birds along with sea turtles are prone to neurologic disease from red tide after hunting in the water and eating fish who have been affected by the algae overgrowth.

This pelican and other patients that have been affected by red tide will be treated with an intravenous lipid emulsion therapy (IVLE) treatment. This means that the animal will receive an infusion over a period of several hours of lipids and fats which bind to the harmful neurotoxins allowing them to be excreted from the system. Usually, if the patient is treated within 24 hours of displaying noticeable red tide symptoms, there is an over 80% success rate for recovery and release back to the wild.

THIS WEEK AT CROW (12/3-12/10):
There were 28 patients admitted to CROW’s Wildlife Hospital including two royal terns, two great blue herons, a striped mud turtle, five eastern cottontails, two double-crested cormorants, a red shouldered hawk, a great egret, an osprey, a grasshopper sparrow, and a white pelican. Recent releases include a Florida softshell turtle, a Cooper’s hawk, a brown pelican, a lesser scaup, a mourning dove, and a laughing gull! Check out a full list of CROW’s current patients and recent releases.

Wildlife doesn’t have health insurance! Your donations help cover the costs of medical and rehabilitative care for over 5,000 patients admitted to CROW’s Wildlife Hospital each year.

About Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW)
Established in 1968, the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) is a teaching hospital saving the sick, injured and orphaned native and migratory wildlife of Southwest Florida and beyond.  Through state-of-the-art veterinary care, public education programs and an engaging visitor center, CROW works to improve the health of the environment, humans and our animals through wildlife medicine. For more information, or to plan your visit, go to If you find an animal that is in need of help, call (239) 472-3644 ext. #222.

Comments (1)

  1. If the environmental agencies did their job and ended the dumping of fertilizers into Lake Okechobee the red tide death and destruction would end. The overgrowth of the algae is an entirely preventable man-made environmental disaster. Enough is enough.

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