Judy Holbrook spied a unique sight on Rocky Fork Lake behind her home on March 18 – four American white pelicans.
These pelicans are hard to miss. They are snow-white with black primary and secondary wing feathers and a massive yellow bill. One of North America’s largest birds, typically weighing 17 pounds or more, they average about five feet in length and have a wing span of about nine feet.
“It’s very unusual, you know,” said Holbrook. “They’re in migration I’m positive, but we don’t get them here very often, maybe once every 10, 12 or 14 years.”
Holbrook was out of town and her son and daughter-in-law were at her home and were the first to see the four white birds on the lake before she returned. Her son, at first, thought the birds were swans.
“I said, ‘No honey, those are white pelicans.’”
As a seasoned resident on Rocky Fork Lake, the sight was uncommon for Holbrook. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a white pelican around Rocky Fork,” she said. “I’ve only seen them one other time, and we’ve been here 24 years.”
The massive birds are being reported with increasing frequency in Ohio and elsewhere in the eastern U.S. Their principal range is west of the Mississippi River, and many winter in the Gulf States.
By the early 20th century, the population of these pelicans was in serious decline as they were victims of wetland loss and rampant shooting for sport. As is the case with other birds, various pesticides including DDT, took a toll on their population. They were accidental visitors to Ohio between 1920 and 1980, mainly along Lake Erie.
Sightings of the birds in Ohio increased in the 1980s because of the purging of toxic pesticides from the environment, better protection of nesting colonies, and wetland restoration.
“In migration we continue to see more and more of them here in Ohio,” said Kathy Garza-Behr, a wildlife communication specialist with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Wildlife. “They don’t nest here yet, but maybe someday Ohio will have a nest at one of its larger lakes.”
“I’m going to try to see them myself,” said Garza-Behr. “I think any bird watcher or wildlife watcher would find this a treat.”
Holbrook enjoyed the treat. “They were in the cove right behind our house,” she said. “It was quite a site to see.”
Reach John Hackley at 937-402-2571.