Main Content

The American White Pelican is a large white and black bird, one of the biggest birds in North America. With yellow legs, webbed feet and large wings, these birds are excellent swimmers and flyers. A large pouched yellow bill helps them gather food along the surface of the water. Breeding individuals develop a “horn” on their bill, which they lose after the breeding season. 

Weight: 4.5 to 9 kg (10 to 20 lb)    
Length: 127 to 165 cm (50 to 65 in)    
Wingspan: 244 to 290 cm (96 to 114 in)

Report American White Pelican sightings to or

American White Pelicans are only found in North and Central America. They migrate every year from their summer breeding grounds to their winter range. Their northern breeding range includes southern NWT, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. Their southern winter range includes the Gulf Coast states, Mexico, and Central America.

The Slave River colony is the only known breeding colony that uses habitat in the NWT. They nest on islands in the Slave River just south of the Alberta border, approximately 8 km southeast of Fort Smith. They feed at the Rapids of the Drowned at Fort Smith, as well as other wetlands, lakes and rivers in the area. Pelicans can travel long distances to feed and are sometimes seen throughout the southern NWT. 

In the past, American White Pelicans have also nested at other places in the NWT: in the early 1900s on islands in Great Slave Lake, and in the 1980s at Oracha Falls on the Taltson River – a place name that comes from the Chipewyan word for ‘pelican’, ʔOrānchāy.

Range map information

American White Pelicans feed in shallow waters along edges of water bodies or below rapids. They mainly eat small fish.

American White Pelicans breed in colonies, groups made up of pairs of adults that nest together. These colonies range from dozens to thousands of individuals. They typically nest on isolated islands close to feeding areas. A pelican usually lays two eggs; however, often only one chick survives. After a few weeks, chicks from multiple nests group together into “pods” while the adults are out feeding.

Northern breeding pelicans return to their breeding grounds in the spring, as frozen waters open up. In the NWT, this generally occurs in late April to early May. 

Between the 1960s and 1980s, populations of American White Pelican increased in the USA and Canada, more than doubling the total number of pelicans. This increasing trend has continued. In 2016, there were an estimated 180,000 American White Pelicans across their entire range.

In the NWT, surveys are done on the Slave River colony every year. The colony increased during the 1970s-1990s. It began to stabilize in the 2000s with around 400-800 nests each year. In 2022, the colony was estimated to include between 1,300 and 2,100 pelicans. 

There is only one known breeding colony of American White Pelicans in the NWT—which means a single threatening event could negatively impact all the pelicans in the NWT. This is a key reason why they were assessed as a species at risk in the NWT.  The main threats are diseases, disturbance by humans, climate change and flooding, and predators.

Pelicans are susceptible to disease outbreaks because many birds live together in the colony. Contagious diseases such as avian botulism and West Nile virus have been known to cause pelican mortalities and occasionally die-offs at colonies elsewhere. These diseases have not been documented in the NWT.

Humans can disturb pelicans by using boats and low-flying aircraft too close to nests. Adult pelicans might leave their nests and eggs if they are disturbed, sometimes never coming back to their colony.

Flooding and extreme weather events can impact nesting success and survival of chicks. Pelicans in the NWT could be affected by more variable weather and water levels due to climate change.

Predators of pelicans in the NWT may include foxes, coyotes, wolves, eagles, ravens and gulls. Colonies are especially vulnerable when low water levels make it easier for predators to reach the nesting islands, or when eggs and chicks are left unattended because of human disturbance.

In the NWT, the Wildlife Act prevents destroying or disturbing the nest of a bird when the nest is occupied by a bird or its eggs.

The Pelican Advisory Circle, started in the early 1970s, is a locally-led group dedicated to monitoring the Slave River pelican colony. They work with the Town of Fort Smith, the Government of the Northwest Territories, and the Government of Alberta to teach people about the pelicans and help them watch the birds of the Slave River colony safely. This has helped lessen human disturbance on the colony.

From April 15 to September 15, the Slave River colony’s nesting islands in Alberta are protected as a seasonal wildlife sanctuary under provincial legislation. A Transport Canada regulation prevents low altitude flights over the site during the same period.

Canada-wide, American White Pelicans are not considered to be at risk. In 2023, the NWT Species at Risk Committee assessed American White Pelican as a species of Special Concern in the NWT. The potential addition of American White Pelican to the NWT List of Species at Risk is under consideration

Dehcho South Slave