Sioux River

Missouri River

View southeast, downstream

missouri at little sioux iowa

© 2000 Airphoto—Jim Wark

A Froth of Feathers

Today, slicing cleanly between Iowa (left of river) and Nebraska (right), the Missouri River is kept tidily groomed for river commerce. But when the expedition passed this way late in the summer of 1804–and again during the first week in September 1806–the river was broad and brawny. Not long after getting underway on the morning of August 8, 1804, according to Sergeant Ordway, they "passd a part of the River Choked up with logs & Snags. So that we found it difficult to pass through with Safety." Sometimes it held driftwood, sawyers and snags big enough to damage hulls, and sometimes it formed sandbars that defied forward progress and put boats and boatmen at the current's mercy.

Soon after passing the mouth of the Sioux River they began to notice "a great number of feathers floating down the river."

those feathers had a very extraordinary appearance as they appeared in such quantities as to cover pretty generally sixty or seventy yards of the breadth of the river. for three miles after I saw those feathers continuing to run in that manner, we did not percieve from when they came, at length we were surprised by the appearance of a flock of Pillican at rest on a large sand bar attatched to a small Island the number of which would be if estimated appear almost in credible; they appeared to cover several acres of ground, and were no doubt engaged in procuring their ordinary food; which is fish . . . the Pellican rested again on a sand bar above the Island which we called after them from the number we saw on it.,

As he approached within about 300 yards of the throng, they took flight with one prolonged splash. Firing his rifle "at random among the flock," he brought one down.1 Even though it was a familiar species, Lewis proceeded to write a detailed description of it.

First, he outlined the pelican's habits of migration and reproduction, possibly relying on one of the reference books he had with him. "They are a bird of clime," he wrote, that "remain on the coast of Floriday and the borders of the Gulph of mexico & even the lower portion of the mississippi during the winter and in the Spring . . . visit this country and that farther north for the purpose of raising their young." Then he examined his specimen's beak, and remarked on the colors and qualities of its plumage. From beak to toe it measured 5 feet, 8 inches; its wingspread was 9 feet, 4 inches. Its legs were only 11 inches long, including the foot.

The whitish-yellow beak was 1 foot, 3 inches long, and from 1½ to 2 inches wide. The under part of it was "connected to a bladder like pouch . . . uncovered with feathers" which was "formed [of] two skins the one on the inner and the other on the center side." He found the capacity of the pouch to be 5 gallons of water. Upon closer examination he found that "it has a curious frothy subs[t]ance which seems to devide its feathers from the flesh of the body and seems to be compose[d] of globles of air and perfectly imbraces the part of the feather which extends through the skin." Finally, he observed that the windpipe "terminates in the center of the lower part of the supper and unf[e]athered part of the pouch and is secured by an elastic valve commanded at pleasure"


American white pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos Gmelin

white pelican

© A. Morris/VIREO, No. m17/70/018

An American white pelican makes a neat two-point, feet-first landing in its native element, ready for action. With its flexible lower bill expanded and its featherless, distensible pouch cocked open a little, it appears ready to bob–it doesn't dive–for the fish it spotted from aloft. Or maybe it's about to sound what Lewis would have called its "note," which is somewhere between a bark and a honk or, in Aldo Leopold's phrase, one of those "queer antediluvian grunts."2

Officially, this gregarious avian is a Pelecanus erythroynchos Gmelin. Pelecanus (pronounce it pel-eh-KAY-nus) is the Latin transliteration of the Greek word for pelican. The generic name erythrorynchos (say air-ith-roh-RING-koss) is a combination of two Greek words meaning "red"3 (erythros) and "beak" (rynchos). The species was first described for science in 1789 by the German naturalist, botanist and entomologist Johann Friedrich Gmelin (1748-1804). Of the world's six species of pelicans, the two that are native to North America are easily recognizable by their colors—white and brown.4

The pelican is not much for looks. It's about as inelegant as a moose, and it's comparably super-sized: Its wingspan may reach up to eight or nine feet, long enough to carry a body that may be from four to six feet long, and weigh as much as seventeen pounds. Its do-or-die take-offs have to be witnessed in the wild to be appreciated. It walks–or hops–on water to reach minimum airspeed, slapping the surface with both feet together, wings straining for lift. Once airborne, however, it cruises effortlessly, almost languidly, on wing-beats of only one or two per second. Or it sociably joins its kin in short, crisp lines, or formations like the V that aerial photographer Jim Wark captured, head pulled far back over its body, far enough to rest beak on breast. Or it soars on lifting air currents with a grace that rivals that of an eagle or a hawk.

The familiar but often misquoted and misattributed limerick by the poet and humorist Dixon Lanier Merritt (1910) is instructive, even where it is factually off the mark.

A wonderful bird is the pelican.
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Enough food for a week.
But I'm damned if I know how the helican.

It is indeed "a wonderful bird," a noble bird, a creature of the Cretaceous with a history in which its Biblical status suggests a comparatively recent generation.5 And his bill could hold more than his "belican," perhaps, but it is neither made nor used for storing food. It seizes its fishy fare in a big mouthful of water–normally about three gallons, not five as Lewis guessed–then squeezes the water out through the sides of its mouth by pressing the bottom of its pouch against its breast, and gulps its catch into its gullet. The expandable lower bill is a multipurpose organ. In hot weather, pelicans can sometimes be seen cooling their bodies with pulsations of their pouches.



American white pelicans

Pelicans flying low over the Missouri River in a 'V' formation

© 2000 Airphoto—Jim Wark

"This small flock of pelicans rose from the water as the airplane approached. Almost instantly they were in this symmetrical formation with perfectly synchronized wing beats." – Jim Wark


Incidentally, ever alert to the changing soundscapes around him, Lewis noted in a postscript to his bird tale that "the green insect known in the U' States by the name of the sawyer or chittediddle [a.k.a. katydid] was first heard to cry on the 27th of July."

From Discovering Lewis & Clark from the Air
Photography by Jim Wark

Text by Joseph Mussulman
Reproduced by permission of Mountain Press

1. Private John Dame shot one also.

2. Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford, 1949), 159.

3. The adjective red carries in its three letters a long history and a wide range of shades, from bright scarlet or crimson to reddish-brown (as in the European red deer, Cervus elaphus). The pelican's yellowish-orange bill, and similarly colored legs and feet, thus would once have qualified as red.

4. John K. Terres, The Audubon Encyclopedia of North American Birds, (New York: Wings Books, 1980), 681-83.

5. Lewis and his companions might have heard or read Psalm 102:6—"I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl of the desert." Or Leviticus 11:18; or Deuteronomy 14:17.