Decades ago, spotting a pelican in north Alabama was rare, according to experts, but now residents can spot many of the jowly birds spending their winters hanging out along various waterfronts.
“They are now a very common winter bird,” said Geoffrey Hill, professor of biological sciences at Auburn University. “They used to mostly go down to the Gulf Coast. You didn’t see them inland very often, only if you got lucky and caught them moving from site to site.”
Hill said thousands of American white pelicans could be spotted on Dauphin Island, but now they’re hardly seen there. The birds now spend their winters as far north as Decatur, across the Tennessee Valley, in the great lakes along the Coosa River and down on into Eufaula.
They breed up in the upper Midwest, in states such as Minnesota and North Dakota, and migrate south for the winter. The pelicans arrive in the area in November and stay until April, according to Hill. Scoops of the birds — that’s one name for a flock of pelicans — can sometimes be seen in the summer as well. A group of pelicans can be referred to as a brief, pod, pouch or squadron.
Pelican sightings aren’t out of the ordinary to residents along the Coosa River area, according to Richard Thomas, who lives near the river.
“I see them white birds out there all the time,” he said.
Hill said he was recently in St. Clair County, where he saw “many hundreds” of the pelicans
“Apparently it’s a great fish stop in the Tennessee River Valley and the Coosa River Valley,” Hill said. “They eat better up in those rivers than they did down in the Gulf of Mexico.”
In the winter birds go where the food is, he said, and the fact that they have shifted their winter range from the Gulf Coast to the Tennessee River Valley indicates the food is better up north.
“The floods probably pushed them to a place we aren’t used to seeing but I just drove up and I bet there were 500 white pelicans,” Hill said, referring to the St. Clair location.