Cooperative herding behavior by the American white pelican catches more food by concentrating prey.

The American white pelican is a large waterbird that lives across North America, breeding in the interior of the continent and spending its winters on the coasts. Unlike its relative the brown pelican, the American white pelican rarely plunge-dives for food. It typically swims on the surface of the water and grabs or scoops up fish and other prey with its pouch-shaped bill.

One strategy that these pelicans can use to increase their catch is cooperative feeding. In cooperative feeding behavior, groups of pelicans (usually less than 20) work together while swimming to herd small schooling fish into a dense ball or toward shallow water, where it’s difficult to escape. This behavior can start when the presence of pelicans attracts more pelicans to the area and a group forms. The pelicans then form a line or semicircle on one side of the schooling fish and begin to swim toward each other, closing in on the school. Once one pelican strikes at a fish in the dense school, the other birds immediately begin to strike, as well.

Some researchers have observed that smaller groups of pelicans (between two and six) are the most successful at catching prey using this cooperative herding behavior. The most effective group size likely depends on several factors, including prey density and whether too many birds increases the chance of a premature strike that could scare fish away.

To see American white pelicans feeding in a group, check out this video.

Image: Frank Schulenburg / CC BY SA - Creative Commons Attribution + ShareAlike
Image: David Slater / CC BY - Creative Commons Attribution alone
white pelicans on body of water during the daytime
Image: Jason Mrachina / Flickr / CC BY NC SA - Creative Commons Attribution + Noncommercial + ShareAlike

It's mating season at Lake Red Rock. These white pelicans are gathering up into huge flocks as they finish their migration north. The large bumps on their beaks are some kind of mating signal that they are mature.

Last Updated April 30, 2018