Among the most arresting birds that congregate along the Arkansas River in winter are Ameriican white pelicans. Seeing these curvy Mae West-style beauties paddling along companionably in orderly fashion is serenity-inducing, even on bleak and chilly mornings.
Observers are accustomed to the presence of elegant solitary white egrets and blue herons, who live here year-round, wading across the shallow backwaters of the river. There are always plenty of Canada geese on the river banks, along with the occasional duck.
But the first sighting of an American white pelican can be befuddling. Those of us who don't know much about birds might wonder: Is that a seagull? (Unlikely; ring-billed gulls are common enough hereabouts, but they sure don't look like pelicans.)
Here's how to identify a white pelican: Brilliant white plumage with black flight feathers (visible only when the wings are spread, yet easy to see with its nine-foot wingspan), body weight from 8 to 20 pounds, height around four feet, a large yellow-
orange bill, huge throat pouch used for catching fish, and, unlike those noisy geese, mostly silent except for a raspy grunt that accompanies wing-jerking displays employed during agressive and sexual encounters (OK, too much information).
The movies (think Nigel in Pixar's "Finding Nemo") have educated us to think that pelicans, like many types of gulls, live in coastal regions. Nope, those are brown pelicans. They're the "Top Gun" drama queens that dive-bomb at full speed into bodies of water to snatch fish (white pelicans ply the surface of the water and scoop up fish with their bills), and aren't common hereabouts.
White pelicans, which are migratory birds, could leave their breeding and nesting grounds in the northern United States and southern Canada and head in V-formations to coastal areas such as California, Florida, Mexico and Central America for the winter if they wanted to.
But plenty of them choose to hang out here in areas where the water does not freeze. Saracen Lake in Pine Bluff is a hot spot, as is Lake Conway, Lake Chicot, and Lake Dardanelle. They tend to head back north in March or April, although non-breeding adults have the option of sticking around other times of the year.
They're a social bunch, which has the practical benefit of contributing to successful fishing. I've seen them form a U-shaped line and start swimming leisurely (their attitudes seem to be "nothing to see here; move along") towards the riverbank while flapping their wings, herding their unsuspecting future fish dinners along as they zero in for the kill.
Fish isn't all that's on a pelican's menu. According to the website mentalfloss.com, they also prey on crustaceans, amphibians, turtles, and other birds (!). If it can fit down their throats, it's fair game.
Facts are fun, but aren't essential to savor the sight of these grand prehistoric-looking creatures. One of the best descriptions of their effect on observers can be found on allaboutbirds.org in a quote from "A Sand County Almanac" by conservationist Aldo Leopold:
"Let a squadron of southbound pelicans but feel a lift of prairie breeze ... and they sense at once that here is a landing in the geological past, a refuge from that most relentless of aggressors, the future. With queer antediluvian grunts they set wing, descending in majestic spirals to the welcoming wastes of a bygone age."
Or, on a more practical level, consider these profound words from "Finding Nemo's" Nigel: "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta eat."
Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.