The man yelled before reaching the dam on the Umatilla River — “Pelican! Pelican!”
I could not tell if he was angry or excited to see the giant white birds. They stared at him annoyingly but moved away from the fish ladder exit.
A single bird nicknamed “Lonesome Larry” frequented Three Miles Falls Dam on the Umatilla River for years and was almost always there. In the last few years, more than 30 birds reside on the dam’s crest where the flow and their observation of the fish ladder entrance and exit are perfect.
White pelicans are native to the West Coast and now are year-round residents in the Columbia Basin. Like the expanding populations of invasive collared or Eurasian doves, some people welcome them while others want to reduce their presence.
White pelicans are not listed under the federal Endangered Species Act but are protected under the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Their stark white color and tufted head along with their red eyes always make them look out of place. Their unusual head bobbing, graceful flying and ungainly takeoff always elicit a second look. They have up to 120-inch wingspan, second only to the California condor, and weigh up to 30 pounds.
Both adults have a bright orange bill adored with a vertical plate during mating season. At other times the bill is pale with no plate.
A group is technically called a scoop or squadron. They are more common than the Trumpeter or tundra swans but fewer than the thousands of snow geese now seen here in the winter. In the last few years their range has moved up the Umatilla and Walla Walla rivers. They nest on the ground, usually on an island away from egg robbers.
The closest nesting colony in the mid-Columbia is at Badger Island near the Walla Walla River confluence in the McNary National Wildlife Refuge. The colony has grown to an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 breeding pairs and represent 9% of the western population of birds.
They are known to cooperate and group forage and there is some indication that they do this at night directly below McNary Dam on the Columbia River. They feed exclusively on fish and may follow releases and migration of fish. Feeding among individuals is extremely competitive.
Once I watched a 20-pound pelican try to swallow a 10-pound steelhead that had been released from a river return pipe. He did not finish with a meal but the fight was spectacular. You can only admire the optimism and story the bird had after the encounter.
To reduce pelican presences at river return pipes, water sprayers have been installed. Like some biological determinants, the results were different than expected. The adaptable birds learned that when the sprayer came on it was not only a cool shower but also a potential meal being dropped into their laps.
I see pelicans every day and expect them to express a personality to match their stature. They need a legacy like the stork or bald eagle. I do not know why historical numbers of pelicans dropped in the Columbia Basin. They nested in Moses Lake in the 1930s. Whether it was because of DDT contamination affecting eggs, feather take for fashion, fear that they were eating all the fish, or winters too cold. I don’t think they were ever hunted for food.
I do know they are very abundant this year unlike last year, when few were seen. I enjoy their graceful landings more than their gangly takeoffs. As most goose hunters know, a decoying goose needs a landing path to land, but a pelican seems to just drop from the sky.
I still yell, “Pelican! Pelican!,” every time I see them.