116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Hundreds of American white pelicans are visiting the Iowa River in Iowa City, delighting residents with their snowy feathers and prominent yellow bills.
“They are a big white bird that from behind looks like a swan,” said Anna Burkhardt-Thomas, the state’s top bird expert within the Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife diversity staff. “That really long yellow beak with a pouch for fish is a key feature.”
For more than a week, the pelicans have been swimming in and flying around the Iowa River as far south as Terry Trueblood Recreation Area all the way north to the Coralville Lake. Large clusters of the birds loiter south of the dam in downtown Iowa City, where turbulent water stirs up fish.
This Midwest spring break is part of the pelicans’ migration from their winter habitat on the Gulf Coast shores to Minnesota or Canada, where they will spend the summer, Burkhardt-Thomas said. But pelicans don’t always come through Iowa in such large numbers, and they don’t always stay so long.
“They might stick around longer if they are finding a good food source,” she said.
These impressive visitors have brought out the birders, both veteran and novice.
Bob Sass, 65, of Iowa City, sat Monday in his pickup at Terry Trueblood park, watching pelicans on the lake through his binoculars.
“I like watching them fly,” he said. “You see the black tips, then they turn and the white on their wings catches the sun and they just kind of disappear into the sky.”
American white pelicans have black flight feathers on the underside of their wings only visible when their wings are open. The birds have a 9-foot wingspan — larger than brown pelicans found near the ocean.
These freshwater birds have a foot-long beak with a pouch for catching and holding fish. Pelicans of both genders get a bump or knob on the top of their beaks during mating season. The bump falls off after they have mated and laid eggs, the Iowa DNR reports.
The pelicans stopping in Iowa City will go farther north to breed, Burkhardt-Thomas said. Iowa has one breeding colony of pelicans, along the Mississippi River.
“When they are breeding, they’ll often set up on an island with nests on the ground,” she said. “You’ll see a large number of nests in that area. We don’t see that where we see other pelicans.”
Pelicans are at risk of catching bird flu in rivers and lakes used by waterfowl, such as geese or ducks, believed to carry the H5N1 strain of the disease, Burkhardt-Thomas said. The infection can be spread through feces or saliva.
“At this point, no evidence that pelicans in Iowa have the highly pathogenic avian flu,” she said. “It has been found in pelicans in some other states. There has been one report of pelicans in Missouri with avian influenza.”
Bird flu has infected 14 commercial and backyard poultry flocks so far this year in Iowa and more than 13 million birds have been euthanized in a state that is No. 1 in egg production.
How long the pelicans will stay in Iowa City may depend on the weather, Burkhardt-Thomas said. If there’s a strong wind from the south, they may decide to lift off to use that current to take them closer to their summer homes up north.
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