How did a Great White Pelican fly around the world? Here are some answers.

by Anders Gyllenhaal
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How does a huge, lumbering bird like the Great White Pelican fly halfway around the world to reach a place like Florida?

Great White Pelican lands on Merritt Island Refuge/Photos by Anders Gyllenhaal

It’s a question birders and experts alike have been asking in the weeks since one of these striking, exotic pelicans from Africa and Asia arrived on the Merritt Island Wildlife Refuge south of Jacksonville. Although birds are always turning up in unexpected places, this visit set off a true kerfuffle as word got around.

Our Flying Lessons post on the Great White Pelican drew thousands of views and 600 shares on our Facebook page. With those came an avalanche of questions:

Did this bird fly all the way – or perhaps escape from a zoo in this hemisphere? Will it stay in the area, or find its way back home? Will it upset the balance of nature the way certain non-native plants and animals do? How does a bird get so far off course in the first place?

“I would love to know what his story is,’’ Linda Boccuti wrote on our Flying Lessons Facebook page.

Most of the answers are guesses, since the bird wasn’t tagged and certainly isn’t talking. But Andrew Farnsworth, a research associate with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology who specializes in migration, said the likely drivers are genetic migration instincts that go off track, lack of food back home and changing weather patterns that are becoming more frequent around the globe.

The arrival of vagrant species excites birders like little else, and it also opens a window on the complexities of migration. Bird migrations are guided by weather, food and genes. As for genetics, sometimes instincts can be muddled or even in conflict if a bird’s parents’ migration histories differ.

Andrew Farnsworth

“Sometimes it could be programming if you will, variation in birds’ orientation and navigation tools,’’ Farnsworth said. Other times, the weather can play a role. “For example seabirds can become (entrapped) in the circulation of hurricanes and transported far away,’’ Farnsworth explained.

Few birds end up as far off course as this Great White Pelican seems to be. The species comes from the coast of Africa, Southern Europe and India. So this one would have flown somewhere between 4,000 and 8,000 miles to reach Florida if it came under its own power.

“Now, that’s some miles,’’ quipped Facebook follower Mona Williams.

Great White Pelican range map, from Birds of the World

In fact, the Great White Pelican is known for its ability to fly for days without stopping, even across massive bodies of water. Its wingspan can reach 12 feet, making this one of the largest birds on Earth with a powerful form designed for distance.

Some readers wondered whether the bird was likely to stay in Florida, whether it might upset the balance of native pelicans and whether climate change might have something to do with its arrival. One wondered whether it might have escaped from a zoo.

It’s hard to answer these questions with certainty. The arrival of a single non-native bird isn’t likely to upset things in Florida. Cornell’s Farnsworth said the fact that it didn’t appear to be banded meant it was likely a wild bird, not a captive. As to how long it will stay, the best answer will come in time from the swarm of birders following the pelican.

Here’s a video of the Great White Pelican on the Merritt Island refuge last week:

A Great White Pelican has visited Florida once before in recent years. In 2016, one showed up in the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge on the Gulf Coast’s Sanibel Island, and another – perhaps the same bird — was spotted near there again the following year.

As it does with significant vagrants, the Florida Ornithological Society conducted an investigation of those cases, studying photos, confirming the bird’s identification, even checking with zoos and aviaries to see if any had gone missing.

At first, the society figured Ding Darling’s bird may well have flown from across the globe. “Given the migratory behavior, the history of vagrancy, the lack of any signs of captivity, and pelicans’ great ability to fly long distances, the Committee felt that a wild origin was not out of the question,’’ the society wrote in its report.

Then after the second sighting, it backed off that conclusion a little. “We felt the bird from Sanibel is just as likely an escape from captivity as a wild vagrant from natural populations,’’ it added.

Whatever the true story, both the earlier visit and the current one accomplished something in themselves. They brought a flurry of attention to the mysteries of migration and the impacts of a changing world on birds.

The hundreds of comments from Flying Lessons’ followers showed the excitement a single fascinating bird can engender.

“So beautiful and amazing,’’ wrote Barbara Scott.

“This is so cool,’’ said Gwen Rhodes.

“Magnificent,’’ said Ina Repper.

Added Andrew Filtz, “I guess the old school saying can be put here for the pelicans. You’ve come a long way, baby.’’

After a short stay within view of our group of birders, the pelican took flight and disappeared in the middle of the Indian River.

 

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