Pelicans Return to Minnesota After Near Extinction

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Flocks of giant white birds are catching the eyes of birders and outdoor enthusiasts across Minnesota as once-rare American White Pelicans return to their summer nesting grounds at 16 sites across the state, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

The pelicans were driven to near extinction in the early 20th century from human pressures. There were no reports of nesting pelicans in Minnesota for 90 years, from 1878 until 1968.

However, conservation efforts led by the DNR’s Nongame Wildlife Program along with federal regulations have helped pelican populations make a slow and steady comeback. In Minnesota, there are estimated to be about 22,000 pairs of pelicans that nest at 16 sites on seven lakes across 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.”

The 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.

More information on American White Pelicans is available online.

Donations to Nongame Wildlife checkoff on Minnesota tax forms helps fund monitoring and restoration efforts of pelicans in Minnesota.