Once-rare pelicans on yearly return to Minnesota

American white pelicans. (Minnesota DNR)

American white pelicans are making their yearly migration to Minnesota about two weeks early this year, according to the Department of Natural Resources.

With bright white plumage, a nine-foot wingspan, and bright orange bill, the once-threatened species ranks among the largest birds in the world. Its graceful flight, pouch-like throat, and awkward gait makes it a favorite among bird watchers.

The pelicans spend winters along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Mexico and typically return to Minnesota in early spring as the thawing of lakes and rivers allow.

“Southern and western Minnesota’s prairie pothole lakes are native habitat for American white pelicans,” said DNR nongame wildlife specialist Lisa Gelvin-Innvaer. “In fact, more than one-fifth of all pelicans in North America will nest in western Minnesota alone.”

Shallow lakes with islands are generally ideal for pelican nesting grounds, and have abundant food sources, which typically will be the plentiful rough fish and crustaceans found in prairie pothole lakes. Pelicans typically live in large colonies and use teamwork to gather food, much to the delight of bird-watchers. Pelicans will group up and swim in a semicircle to herd their prey into shallow water before scooping up fish and water in their beak pouch.

To catch a glimpse, Gelvin-Innvaer advises to do so from afar, and rely on binoculars to watch. Pelicans are particularly sensitive to human disturbance, and are easily scared off of nests. That could lead to nest and egg abandonment and nest failure.

“A good rule of thumb,” said Gelvin-Innvaer, “is if the pelicans are reacting to your presence, you’re too close.”

The pelican’s comeback story, while still being written, is due to conservation efforts and federal regulations. In Minnesota, pelicans received help in the form of monitoring, habitat restoration and technical guidance from the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program. Its comeback has been gradual, and it remains one of Minnesota’s Species in Greatest Conservation Need.

American white pelicans experienced steep declines and were considered threatened. From 1878 to 1968, Minnesota had no reports of nesting pelicans. Today, however, wildlife biologists estimate 22,000 pairs of pelicans that nest on seven lakes across the state.

“They nest in relatively few places in Minnesota, which makes them particularly vulnerable here on breeding grounds,” Gelvin-Innvaer said.

They also face hazards on their wintering grounds such as contaminants from oil spills. Researcher found pollutants inside pelican eggs in Minnesota, linked to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.  Even in small amounts, this potentially could have a large impact on the development of the young.

For more information on American white pelicans, visit www.mndnr.gov/pelicans.

More information on Minnesota’s Nongame Wildlife Program, including how to donate, may be found at mndnr.gov/nongame. Nongame checkoff dollars fund research, surveys, habitat restoration and education for more than 700 nongame wildlife species. Each dollar donated also is matched by funds from the Reinvest In Minnesota Account.

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