PETATAN, Mexico – Hundreds of American white pelicans flock to the Mexican town of Petatan every year, helping boost the local economy.
The town sits on the shore of Lake Chapala in the west and is home to huge squadrons of the feathered animals during the winter and early spring.
The calm waters of the lake, the largest in the country, is the preferred spot for the giant birds, which fly thousands of kilometers from Canada to spend the winter in Mexico’s temperate climate.
There are less than 500 human inhabitants in the town, located on the border between Michoacan and Jalisco states, which is a sanctuary of the pelicans.
Their annual visit to the town attracts thousands of tourists every year which boosts the economy and creates employment for residents, mostly in fishing and catering to the holidaymakers.
Luis Fernando Cervantes has been a fisherman since he was a child.
In the water at the foot of his house, the pelicans sit patiently waiting.
Every day he feeds them fish waste after his wife and mother fillet his catch to sell in Guadalajara, about 130 kilometers away.
He said it is a “joy” when the pelicans arrive every year because the tourists are never far behind.
On Sundays, the boardwalk is brimming with people snapping photos, taking boat rides and trying to feed the distrustful birds.
“If the pelicans didn’t come it would be a bit sad, they make us happy, at the weekend it’s packed with people and it’s pretty, it is full of pelicans and they are company for us,” Cervantes said.
His eldest son Chicharo is one of the children who sell fish skeletons to tourists to feed the pelicans, money which helps his family.
The American white pelican is one of the largest birds in North America with a wingspan measuring between one and a half and three meters long.
The birds are the subject of an annual festival raising awareness about their conservation accompanied by artistic and cultural activities that attract thousands of people from Jalisco, Michoacan and throughout Mexico.
Jesus Ayar has been taking care of the boardwalk for years, making sure visitors do not litter the lake or get too close to the birds.
He knows that the welfare of the people depends on their conservation.
At the entrance to the boardwalk are clusters of street stalls selling sweets, fried food, snacks and ceviche made from fish from the lake.
The locals know that the presence and conservation of the pelicans is a good thing for everyone and a way to bring prosperity to the families of the tiny town, which has a population of around 7,000.
“The tourists that come here spend a lot of money, on Saturday and Sunday stalls are put out, it is a big help that the pelicans come and that’s why we take care of them,” Ayar said.
“The town progresses more and there are more tourists who spend their pennies,” he added.