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Explaining an American White Pelican’s misshapen bill

American White Pelican
American White Pelican at Lake Poinsett, South Dakota. Photo by Steve Snook

In the column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching, Contributing Editor Julie Craves answers readers’ questions about birds and bird behavior. Here is a question from our January/February 2019 issue. 

Q: I took this photo of an American White Pelican at Lake Poinsett, South Dakota. The color of the bird’s bill extended down to its throat, and its bill appeared misshapen. I would like to hear any thoughts you may have on this bird. — Steve Snook, via email

A: I don’t think this is a deformity but rather a large fish partially extending the pouch. The shape is suggestive of the fish’s tail. White pelicans have very large, stretchy pouches that can hold up to 3 gallons of water and many pounds of fish. (Yes, the “pouch holds more than its belly can.”) Unlike the Brown Pelican, which dives from the air for food, American White Pelicans dip for fish in shallow water, and a high percentage of their diet consists of species such as carp and suckers. It’s not unusual for them to attempt to swallow anything they can grasp, including carp over 2 feet long. Since the fish are alive, they writhe and contort as the bird wrangles the fish to go down head first. This is so the spines on the fins do not catch in the pouch or gullet, but occasionally they can get stuck. It’s hard to say if that happened in this case.

View reader photos of American White Pelican

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Julie Craves

Julie Craves

Julie Craves is an ecologist and the retired director of the Rouge River Bird Observatory in Dearborn, Michigan. She answers readers’ questions about birds in her column “Since You Asked” in every issue of BirdWatching. A tireless researcher and bird bander with a keen interest in the stopover ecology of migrant birds, she is also a personable writer with a gift for making everything she writes readable and entertaining. Her first article in Birder’s World (now BirdWatching), “Forest Fire-tail,” a profile of the American Redstart, appeared in June 1994. Send a question to Julie. Read her blog at

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