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White pelicans rebound, call Minnesota lakes and rivers home

Posted on May 8, 2012

Rob DriesleinMy first experience with white pelicans occurred in the early 1980s at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in western Oregon. My family had loaded into the station wagon on an epic roadtrip across the western United States. We’d seen some amazing sights and creatures – buffalo, elk, prairie dogs towns, trumpeter swans, prairie falcons, and golden eagles. But the amazing, graceful flight of a massive flock of pelicans remains seared in my memory 30 years later. For an 11-year-old, it was like watching a flock of soaring pterosaurs circa 66 million BC.

Eleven years later, as a cub reporter at the Winona Daily News, I witnessed the return of pelicans to the Mississippi River in summer 1992. Now, as this blog mentioned a couple weeks ago, we’ve seen thousands of pelicans at least staging on the Upper Miss this spring.

People who spend little time outdoors are amazed pelicans exist in this part of the country. “Pelicans? Don’t they live by the ocean?” (Well yeah, they winter there, and brown pelicans live there year-round.) Case in point: In the late 1990s, tripping around the Rennasissance Festival in Shakopee with my wife and her extended family, I looked skyward and saw a flock of pelicans spiraling overhead.

Another couple stopped and asked, “What are those?” When I responded, “pelicans,” the gal, disgusted at my stupidity, retorted, “There’s no pelicans in Minnesota.” They looked like they’d knock down a few too many glasses of that high-quality RenFest red wine, so I didn’t debate Orinthology 101 with them.

A few weeks ago, the Minnesota DNR issued a press release on the rebound of pelicans in Minnesota. The birds went extinct here in the late 1800s before DDT had a chance to kill them. Seems settler-citizens back then figured the only good fish-eating bird was a dead one, so they’d raid pelican rookeries, destroying nests and clubbing chicks. (Before you go shaking your head in disgust at those ignorant settlers, consider the case of a southern Minnesota farmer last year.
 

There were no reports of nesting pelicans in Minnesota for 90 years, from 1878 until 1968. That was the year a nest was discovered at Marsh Lake, a reservoir of the Minnesota River at the Lac qui Parle Wildlife Management Area. From that one nest 44 years ago, the colony has grown to become the largest in the world, according to Carrol Henderson, DNR nongame program leader.

Pelicans will pioneer an area for years, even decades before nesting, but once one nest takes, the number expands almost exponentially. No known colonies exist on the Mississippi River yet.

Minnesota now has 22,506 pelican nests in 16 locations with 74 percent of them at Marsh Lake. There are also 1,300 pairs in the Lake of the Woods area and 1,200 pairs at Lake Johanna, plus smaller colonies scattered around the southern and western portion of the state.

“The Prairie Pothole Region of western Minnesota hosts 22 percent of the global population of this species, making it a stewardship species,” said Lisa Gelvin-Innvaer, DNR nongame wildlife specialist.

“Being a Species in Greatest Conservation Need in Minnesota helps to ensure the conservation and protection of these birds locally and also contributes significantly to their global conservation.”

Bigger than a bald eagle, pelicans can weigh 16 pounds and have a 9-foot wingspan. Henderson and others maintain that the large fish-eating birds mostly eat smaller fish and roughfish in shallow water. Unlike cormorants, which dive to catch their fish, pelicans aren’t targeting the deeper, fast-swimming.

From the recent DNR release on pelicans:

Pelicans winter along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Mexico and typically return to Minnesota in early spring. They leave each fall as lakes and rivers freeze. They are among the world’s largest birds and are easily recognized in flight. Wingspans up to nine feet, bright white plumage with black-edged wings and large, orange bills distinguish them from any other species.

“Pelicans often fly in evenly spaced lines or V formations,” Gelvin-Innvaer said. “Unlike swans or geese which fly with necks outstretched, pelicans fly with their necks doubled back against their shoulders. They often set up a rhythmic pattern of wing beats that ripple from the lead bird back to the end.”

The pelicans are highly social and live in large, dense colonies. They feed exclusively on small fish and crustaceans and will work together for a meal.

“A group of pelicans will swim in a semicircle to herd their prey into shallow water,” Gelvin-Innvaer said. “Then they'll scoop up fish and water in their beak pouch, drain out the water and swallow their food.”

Gelvin-Innvaer advises that the birds are best enjoyed from a distance. “Pelicans are very susceptible to human disturbance and contact should be minimized,” she said.

Due to the Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill in 2010, which is an area where American white pelicans winter, surveys of pelican colonies in Minnesota are being conducted to help assess potential impacts of the spill to Minnesota breeding populations.

For more information on American White Pelicans, click here.

In the mid-1980s, area TV stations and other media broadcasted stories about the cormorant rookery on the Treampealeau National Wildlife Refuge near Winona. They were an eclectic, charsimatic species among birding circles back then, but that species’ image has taken a severe beating since those days. I hope that doesn’t happen to pelicans.

There’s plenty of room for these unique species and state fishermen, but it’ll be curious to see when tolerance for these birds begins to reach a saturation point. I’m happy my children watched these amazing animals in a location where I could not 30 years ago. Here’s hoping future generations of river users and Minnesotans enjoy pelicans for years to come.