Yes, pelicans do visit Starved Rock! That may shock a lot of people, but this great phenomenon has been happening now for about 10 years. After some investigating, it turns out that over the last 10 years or so, a few of these pelicans began migrating up and down the Illinois River. Until then, the furthest east they were known to migrate was via a Mississippi River route. Over the years, it’s become a regular event and their numbers have grown. Why their migration route, back and forth from fresh water lakes in Canada and the North Central US to the southern US, Mexico and Central America, has shifted east to the Illinois River is unknown. One theory is that a storm threw them off track. Since migration is a learned event, they learned the wrong route one year and then kept following it.
What is even more interesting is the fact that over the past year or two, we have had resident White Pelicans that have been staying at Starved Rock most of the year! From what we have been told – most of these are young, un-mated males or bachelor pelicans. They are not needing to continue to fly all the way to their breeding grounds, as they do not have a mate, so they stay here and fish the Illinois River!
White pelican migration
The American white pelican is a massive and beautiful creature. When full grown, it can weigh up to 20 pounds and have a length of more than 5 feet (over a foot of which consists of the bill alone) and a wingspan of more than 9 feet. White pelicans migrate along one of two, possibly three, flyways, depending on the location of their nesting sites. In the fall, birds in breeding colonies in northern California and nearby areas fly south along the Pacific coast, ending up in the Gulf of California or on the ocean shores of Mexico. Birds in breeding colonies located in central Canada or in northern U.S. states east of the Continental Divide trace the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, traveling all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, sometimes even dispersing east to Florida or further south to Central America. The third flyway is believed to be used by birds that breed on Gunnison Island and other areas in Utah and follows the western edge of the Rocky Mountains, taking the birds to the same wintering locations as those traveling via the other routes.
There are various factors that prompt migratory birds to embark on their annual pilgrimages, and every bird that migrates tends to travel back and forth between the same winter and summer sites along the same routes. How they manage to find their way repeatedly to the same places appears to be the result of both genetics and learning. Genetic programs serve primarily to point migratory birds in the right direction. From there, they must learn which paths to follow and for how long they should fly to reach their destinations. For the vast majority of birds, it seems that juveniles learn how to reach their distant homes by flying with adults who know where to go. For migratory species that take the time to stop and rest, younger generations learn when and where they can do so safely.
Regardless of why they are here – they are a magnificent site to see! Make sure to stop and visit them this summer!