Flocks of giant white birds are catching the eyes of outdoor enthusiasts across Minnesota, as once-rare American White Pelicans migrate north to their nesting grounds across the state.
American White Pelicans were driven to near extinction in the early 20th century from human pressures, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). There were no reports of nesting pelicans in Minnesota for 90 years, from 1878 until 1968.
Conservation efforts and federal regulations have helped pelican populations make a slow and steady comeback. “The prairie pothole region of western Minnesota hosts 22 percent of the global population of this species,” according to Lisa Gelvin-Innvaer, DNR nongame wildlife specialist. In Minnesota, there are estimated to be about 22,000 pairs of pelicans that nest at 16 sites on seven lakes across the state.
American White Pelicans leave Minnesota each fall as lakes and rivers freeze. They winter along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Mexico and typically return to Minnesota in early spring, as lakes and rivers thaw.
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.”
American White 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.”
Pelicans are popular among wildlife watchers. Gelvin-Innvaer advises that the birds are best enjoyed from a distance. “Pelican colonies are vulnerable to human disturbance and contact should be minimized,” she said.
Due to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, in an area of the Gulf of Mexico where American White Pelicans winter, efforts are underway to assess potential impacts of the spill to Minnesota breeding populations.