By Jennifer Nixon, Denver Zoo Bird Keeper
This week’s Feathered Friend is Walter, Denver Zoo’s American white pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos). Since Walter is not cold tolerant he lives behind the scenes in the bird propagation building over the colder winter months. But right now he lives on Monkey Island and will remain there for the warmer months of the year. He shares Monkey Island with 16 Hooded Capuchins, and 2 East African Crowned Cranes.
Walter is 30-years-old, which is very old for a pelican! In the wild, the average lifespan of an American white pelican is about 17 years old. In captivity, they have been known to live until their mid-30s. At the zoo, keepers provide specialized care to Walter to keep him comfortable in his older age. He is provided with straw or hay that he enjoys resting on. He also takes supplements to help his joint health.
During warmer seasons, pelicans in the wild can be seen throughout a large portion of North American. When weather becomes colder, they migrate to Southern California, the Gulf States, Mexico, and Central America. However, there are some populations that live in Texas and Mexico that stay at all times of the year. During the summer months, pelicans are relatively easy to spot at larger freshwater lakes Keep your eyes out for them!
American white pelicans can weigh up to 30 pounds. They have the second largest wingspan of any North American bird, right behind the California condor. During breeding season, the beaks and skin around the eyes of the pelicans become brighter in color. Also during breeding season, both male and female White Pelicans grow a bump on the top portion of their beak. After breeding season is over and eggs are laid, the bump is shed. Female pelicans tend to be a bit smaller than males, but other than that they look very similar.
Pelicans in the wild eat fish, crayfish, and amphibians. At the zoo, Walter is fed twice per day, and is fed an assortment of fish, his favorite tends to be lake smelt. American white pelicans do not dive for fish, but instead swim and use their large bill as a net to catch their prey. Pelicans do not hold fish in their bills as commonly perceived. Instead, the bottom of their bill stretches to catch their prey, which they immediately swallow.
American white pelicans are protected by the Migratory Bird Act of 1918. Threats to pelicans include habitat loss, as well as entanglement in fishing gear and habitat degradation. We can help protect pelicans by protecting and preserving our freshwater lakes.
During the summer months, Walter receives his afternoon feeding at 4:15. Stop by and meet Walter and his keepers at Monkey Island!