Journey of the great white pelican

As Tu Bishvat approaches and temperatures climb upward, the pelicans begin preparations to make the return journey to their summer habitats in Europe.

White pelicans (photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
White pelicans
(photo credit: ITSIK MAROM)
The great white pelican has a special relationship with Israel. Our land is embedded in its brain at its birth and Israel is a major landmark in its future. When it leaves the cold countries of Europe and migrates south to Africa in the autumn, the pelican’s flight over Israel figures prominently.
Like their ancient ancestors, the pelicans pass through Israel during their fall migration. Thousands of them are seen in our skies and many land here to feed in order to gain the energy required for the rest of their long hard journey.
On their first journey, young pelicans with gray feathers join the adults, who are distinguished by bright white feathers and black flight feathers. The inexperienced young are protected by the large flock.
The pelican is a large and heavy bird. In fact, it is one of the largest in the world and during migration it is hungry. In the distant past the migration went relatively smoothly without many human interruptions. However, during the past few centuries, mankind’s activities have had a negative impact on the ancient flight route and this has taken its toll on the birds. The 20th century is particularly notable for hunting and the loss of habitats and feeding locations in Europe.
The great white pelican can reach 10 kilograms in weight and more than three meters in wingspan. Feeding mainly on fish, the pelican lands on the water gracefully and feeds in small packs, through teamwork, by surrounding a school of fish and hunting together. Each pelican needs to eat at least 1.5 kg. of fish per day and even more during migration.
Israel is one of the more amicable countries for the pelican – in stark contrast to some of our neighbors who are prone to shoot the birds on land and during flight. Our friendliness is not without its problems, as the pelicans eat up vast amounts of fish in the ponds along our coast and in the Jordan Valley. The Israel Nature and Parks Authority has been helping to solve this problem by feeding the migrating population of this special bird in designated locations and in collaboration with the fish breeders, who supply unsalable fish for the pelicans. The goal of this effort is to maintain the migration route so the pelicans can complete the southern arid part of the flight while addressing the needs of the fish breeders.
We can enjoy the grace of the great white pelicans for two to three months from October to December, and for those who miss it, some of the pelicans spend the winter in Israel. The impressive sight of a giant flock of almost 1,000 large birds flying above is something to be seen – and with 40,000 pelicans crossing our country each year you can get your chance.
As Tu Bishvat approaches and temperatures climb upward, the pelicans begin preparations to make the return journey to their summer habitats in Europe. The northbound migration is a quicker and less difficult journey for the birds with fewer stopovers in Israel, so pelican watchers here in the springtime have more limited opportunities to see the impressive birds overhead and on the ground and to wish them a good flight. As always, man and bird look forward to their larger-scale reunion in the fall.