Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Uncommon Large Aquatic Birds
Nature Bulletin No. 243-A   November 5, 1966
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Seymour Simon, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

When Chicago was a village, great flocks of Whooping Cranes, Sandhill Cranes, Trumpeter Swans and Whistling Swans passed over here on their migrations in spring and fall. One famous naturalist wrote that the passage of their mighty armies, far up in the sky, filled the mind with wonder and their resonant clangor, all night long, was almost deafening.

Now, the great white whooping cranes, largest of the wading birds and standing almost five feet tall, are nearly extinct except for small colonies that nest somewhere in Canada and winter in refuges along the Gulf Coast. A few sandhill cranes, somewhat smaller and slaty gray, still nest in Michigan but they are rarely seen east of the Mississippi except in Florida. A few hundred trumpeter swans, largest of the swimming birds, are known to breed in Yellowstone Park, in the Red Rock Lakes Refuge in Montana, and along the Snake River in Idaho. A few hundred more nest in British Columbia and southeastern Alaska.

Whistling Swans, however, are more numerous. Although they usually pass over in long unwavering lines very high in the sky, they have been seen almost every fall on McGinnis Slough in our Palos forest preserves. In 1946, a flock of 47 stayed there nearly a month, resting and feeding on submerged roots and vegetation that they reached with their long graceful necks. Smaller than the trumpeter swan, adult "whistlers" weigh from 18 to 25 pounds and have a wingspread of about 7 feet. The young are gray, their plumage gradually changing until they become pure white and adult at the age of five years. They build huge nests along the coast line of the Arctic Sea, and winter along the coastal waters of the United States. They do not whistle. Their calls vary from high unmusical notes, apparently made by the younger birds, to hoarse bass notes resembling those of a tin horn, probably sounded by the old males.

Another big water bird, the White Pelican, occasionally strays into the Chicago region on its migrations to and from their nesting places in Oregon, northern California and the Canadian Northwest. In October, 1946, a white pelican spent 10 days at McGinnis Slough or majestically cruising around. Several years ago, on October 15 and 16, three were seen on Baker Lake near Barrington.

The white pelican is one of the three world's largest flying birds, having a wingspread of almost 10 feet. It is as much a master of the air as the eagle, sometimes alternately flapping and sailing -- sometimes rising to great heights where it will soar for hours and perform majestic evolutions. On land it is ungainly, grotesque and reminiscent of some weird flying reptile that lived millions of years ago. It is pure white except for black wing tips, has short legs, big webbed feet, and holds its long neck back in an awkward kink so that the head rests upon its shoulders. Beneath the long yellow bill hangs a big loose pouch of yellow skin. With this pouch it scoops up schools of small fish which it drives into shallow water. When it feeds its young, the old bird regurgitates "fish soup" into this pouch and opens its bill so that the youngsters may rummage inside and down the parent' s throat.

Each fall and spring the wild haunting cries of the Common Loon are heard when they stop and rest and feed a few days on their travels to and from their homes on lonely northern lakes. The loon likes deep water and is unsurpassed as a diver and swimmer. It can swim long distances under water and, using both wings and feet, can pursue and catch the swiftest fish. In spite of its short wings and heavy body, about the size of a small goose, it is a strong flier but on land it flounders awkwardly and is almost helpless.

A wonderful bird is the pelican. His bill can hold more than his belly can.

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