Pelicans at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge on Wild About Utah

Jul 21, 2020


I first caught sight of the eight pelicans swimming in a straight line towards the water’s edge, looking a lot like a tank division in an old WWII movie. I slammed on the brakes just in time to see them all dip their bills into the water, come up spilling water and cock their heads back and then, gulp! Fish slid down their throats.

“ Wow,” I thought. These pelicans are working together to drive the fish into the shallow water's edge where they can easily scoop them up. And then it got better. Fanning out, the pelicans regrouped in a circle. Swimming towards the center, they tightened the noose. And bam! Dip, scoop, knock back some more fish.


I was amazed at how soundless and seamless it all was and could have watched for hours, but I was on the one-lane autoroute at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and the cars behind me were starting to honk their horns, so I reluctantly moved on. 

As soon as I got home I plunged into research on this majestic bird, beginning with the bill.  When the pelican dips its bill into the water, the lower portion expands into a flexible sac that allows the bird to scoop up as much as three gallons of fish and water. When the pelican cocks back its head, the sac contracts, the water is expelled through a barely open bill, and the fish swallowed. The huge pelican bill, which at first glance looks like a formidable weapon, is actually an exquisitely designed fishing net.

Archeologists have found pelican skulls dating back 30 million years, so this unique bill has definitely passed the test of time.

Back at the refuge, I was able to turn into a visitor pull out and pick up the rather stunning bit of information: these pelicans fly in from Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake, over the Promontory Mountains, daily to forage for fish. That's a 30-mile trip each way!

Long before the Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah, pelicans were building their nest on Gunnison Island. They were briefly disturbed when an artist, Albert Lambourne, tried to homestead for a year in 1850, and a guano mining company dropped off a crew-- a Pole, a Russian, a Scott, and an Englishman-- to mine the bird poop. But the operation wasn't profitable, and when it closed down, the pelicans reclaimed the island. 

Each March the birds fly in from as far away as Mexico, build their nests, and raise their chicks.  The rookery is the largest in the US. In 2017 the population was estimated to be as high as 20,000.

Back in Cache Valley in 2010, Jordan Falslev built a viewing platform near Benson Marina, The Pelican Perch, as his Eagle Scout project. There used to be hundreds of pelicans out there on the water, but when I stopped by last week I didn't see a single one. Numbers are way down now largely because the dropping water level in the Great Salt Lake has exposed a land bridge to  Gunnison Island that allows predators to ravage the nesting site.  


You can still catch sight of a pelican in flight in Cache Valley. Their wingspan is 10 feet. Rudy Gobert, in comparison, has a wingspan of 7 ft 9 in. But for my money, the best show in town is watching packs of pelicans hunt for fish at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.