When you mention pelicans to someone they tend to think of oceans and a large brown bird with a ridiculous pouch suspended from its beak. Few are aware that Minnesota is home to the American white pelican. At sixteen pounds and five feet long, it is a huge bird. To keep that much weight in the air takes substantial wings, and the pelican has them. Its wingspan is a whopping nine feet from tip to tip. Certainly the largest wingspan of any bird found in the state. The wings culminate in black primary feathers.
The pelicans carry their heads folded back much like the blue herons, and because of the structure of the neck they are unable to straighten it out. If these are not enough in the way of field marks to discern the pelican there remains the beak. It has a large, bright orange beak with the familiar pouch, though the pouch is not always visible.
The beak and its pouch are perhaps the most notable feature of the pelican. The pouch is used in catching fish, regulating temperature, and display during courtship. To procure food the pelicans gather in groups and force fish into shallow water where they scoop them up. The pelican’s beak can hold ten liters of water and is so sensitive that they can feel fish within it even on a dark night. If you thought they would fly, pouch distended, with a mix of fish and water you’ve been watching too many cartoons. The reality is that ten liters of water weighs nearly seventeen pounds and no pelican can lift that sort of mass. They expel the water and swallow the fish. If the pelicans are raising young the parents will return to the nest and open their beaks to allow the youngster access to the food.
Pelicans have been perceived as huge predators of fish. So much so that they were routinely persecuted across the state. Early records indicate a large and healthy breeding population of pelicans in Minnesota. The last nesting pair of this original population was seen in the state in 1878. Until 1968 there were no new nests. At that time twenty-five nests were found in the southwest. Since then populations have been returning to areas they previously occupied. So technically what we are experiencing now is perhaps better termed a re-colonization rather than an expansion of range.
My first field guide for birds, a now tattered 1980 edition of Roger Tory Peterson’s A Field Guide to Birds East of the Rockies, shows their range to just touch the far southwestern edge of Minnesota near Lake Traverse and Big Stone Lake. Thirty years later the largest nesting colony of American white pelicans in North America is located on Marsh Lake in Big Stone County. There are scattered nesting colonies across the northern half of Minnesota in Beltrami, Cass, and Lake of the Woods counties. Much of this influx comes from the collapse of a huge nesting colony at Chase Lake in North Dakota.
Many large lakes now support populations of pelicans. They nest in colonies and prefer low sandy islands or peninsulas. The nest is simply a collection of beach debris pushed into a pile. Both parents participate in incubation and neither has a brood patch so they use their feet to keep the eggs warm. Hatching is asynchronous which means that the first laid egg hatches first. This ensures that if the food supply is limited at least the first-born has a chance to survive. After thirty days or so the youngsters gather into a crèche, a tight pack of up to one hundred birds. This affords some warmth and protection from predators.
It appears that pelicans will travel great distances to find fish. They are excellent fliers and can be seen gliding just over the surface of a lake using the ground effect to help support their bodies. I once watched a pelican sail blithely across Bowstring Lake without so much as a twitch of its wings. Often you will see them strung out along the boundary of a thermal letting the lifting air carry them up. As the thermals peter out the pelicans break out of the top and glide to find the next lift. If you are hefty but blessed with long wings you find ways to conserve your energy and let nature do the heavy lifting.
John Latimer is well known throughout northern Minnesota for his phenology work. John will deliver the keynote presentation at the March 2012 Minnesota Family Woodlands Conference and appears weekly on KAXE radio in Grand Rapids, and audio and twitter archives are available here. We hope his work will be a frequent feature on MyMinnesotaWoods. This article also appeared in the Duluth Senior Journal. It is printed with the author’s permission.