So, here’s the obvious question: What are these birds you always associated with the ocean doing in the middle of Kansas?
You could spend a couple of years asking experts, such as biologists and fish-and-game people who can all honestly tell you they either don’t know, or they just haven’t researched the Kansas pelicans. In Kansas, they’re more attuned to mammals and turkeys.
But the most obvious person around who would know the answer is Neal Whitaker, who has been the park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Marion Reservoir for 20 years, and who only recently has been transferred to Council Grove Reservoir.
One might guess that the pelicans have been at Marion Reservoir only 10 to 15 years, and they came at a time when there was a large fish kill there.
But that would be a wrong guess, according to Whitaker. He said the pelicans have been at the reservoir for his entire 20-year tenure. As far as he knows, their stay extends to at least 30 years.
Whitaker said he doesn’t know how long it took for the birds to arrive here after the first years of water internment in the 1960s, which is about the same time their numbers began increasing rapidly following times of depredation.
Amateur pelican theorists did get one part right: the pelicans were first attracted to the reservoir by the fish there. These birds probably are the best and biggest fishermen at the lake.
Oklahoma researchers say the adult white pelicans that range across North America—from Canada in the north to Mexico in the south—on average each consume four pounds of fish daily.
They don’t dive for their prey like brown pelicans do. They dunk their heads under the water, take anywhere up to three gallons of water into an expandable throat sac, then tilt their heads back to swallow fish that were caught in the water.
The pelicans have been observed traveling in lines to drive fish, amphibians and crayfish before them to increase the catch—and even to drive fish toward an opposing line of pelicans.
They only carry food in the sacs when it’s regurgitated there to feed the chicks.
And, those chicks start out rough in life. Their parents use their feet to incubate them on two to three eggs in a nest scratched out on the ground. But only the first-born, strongest chick normally survives because the later chicks can’t handle the competition.
The chicks join “pods,” or groups of chicks, to grow until they begin flying at about 10 weeks old.
The researchers say the pelicans come to fresh water islands, peninsulas and marshes to nest to escape mammalian predators.
That might lead to speculation that the pelicans might be nesting on an island at Marion Reservoir and we don’t realize it because the chicks aren’t obvious until they’re flying away.
Wrong again, according to Whitaker. He has never known any pelicans to nest at Marion Reservoir. The closest thing he has seen to reproductive activity is the telltale dark spot on the back of the head that develops when they feed chicks. It hadn’t faded away yet.
Pelicans also develop “nuptial tubercles,” or large ridges, and ornamental plumes on top of the head when mating, but those fall off afterward.
The truth of the matter, Whitaker said, is that even though the pelicans can appear to be here a large part of the warm season, what we see is two migrations taking place through the area.
The pelicans may take their sweet time eating and resting, but basically they are headed somewhere else.
Whitaker said the birds follow a spring/early summer migration and a fall migration.
The white pelicans are easily recognizable with their white plumage and wings tipped in black.
“I’ve had two times when I’ve seen brown pelicans here, both times in the fall,” Whitaker said, and that is a rare sight.
“One of them was a juvenile that probably got confused, and flew in probably following the whites. I have a photo of the brown (pelican) that I took. They’re more rare—it’s kind of a big deal to see one, and something we report to ornithology sites.”
Whitaker said he has assisted in rescuing injured pelicans, too. They are more susceptible than most birds to swallowing fish caught on set lines or trot lines, he said.
Water fowl hunters also have mistaken the pelicans for game birds, and shot them.
In either case, the injured pelicans receive a time of rehabilitation, Whittaker said. Typically though, reservoir personnel are unable to catch even a half-starved wounded bird in the water until the reservoir freezes, which allows them to run the pelican down on the ice.
By snapping its large beak in a mock defense, pelicans can cause a person to hesitate before grabbing it, he added. But even if a hand gets caught in the beak, the pelican can’t exert enough pressure to injure you.
Whitaker has taken injured pelicans for rehabilitation to Milford Reservoir and to Wichita, Whitaker said.