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DOOR TO NATURE: A Wonderful Bird is the Pelican

On a beautiful, clear day, I enjoyed watching 34 white pelicans flying in circles high above the road. I had to stop driving to admire the large white birds with black primary feathers while they flew in formation, then seemed to disappear as they turned. It seemed like they barely had to move their wings, just floating in the air and taking advantage of the wind.

Roy and I were excited to see our first pelicans while visiting friends in Vero Beach, Florida in March of 1977. Both the brown and white species lived there during the winter. Brown pelicans are year-round residents along the Atlantic coast and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as the Pacific coasts up to San Francisco.

Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay was named for the white pelicans that nested there years before the old federal prison was built. Alcatraz is an archaic Spanish word for pelican.

Brown pelicans are slightly smaller than American white pelicans. They commonly fly in lines over the ocean, then dive into the water to find fish. Adults can have various brown and white patterns on their necks, depending on their breeding stage.

American white pelicans only spend the winter in the southern states, Mexico and Central America. They have bred in the northwestern quarter of the United States, on islands in inland lakes, for many years. 

The owner of Gordon Lodge called Roy in the autumn of 1978, saying there was a huge bird with a very long beak near their dock. Roy rushed over and got a few photographs before it headed out to deeper water. At that time, the white pelican was considered rare in our state, seen annually five times or fewer.

This species is one of the heaviest flying birds, weighing about 20 pounds with a wingspan of 8 to 9.5 feet. Its body length is about 62 inches. 

The white pelican’s normal breeding range is the prairie provinces of Canada and the mountain lakes of the West, where the birds can find islands that prevent predatory animals from invading their nests.

White pelicans lay two eggs, but sometimes the first chick to hatch harasses the second one so much that it doesn’t get enough food, causing it to starve to death.

When it comes to making a nest, white pelicans don’t do much building. They may settle in a shallow scrape on the ground surrounded with some soil and bits of nearby plant material.

In the mid-1990s, white pelicans became summer residents along the shores of Door County. Some of the birds had begun nesting at Horicon Marsh in the central part of the state, and more found the lower Green Bay islands.

Now, these spectacular black-and-white birds are common throughout northeastern Wisconsin. A few have even been seen in Green Bay on Christmas bird counts. 

A few years ago, a caller found a large white bird along the shore of Lake Michigan south of Baileys Harbor. She thought it was a crane, but it turned out to be a white pelican with a numbered metal band on its leg.

We checked with Tom Erdman, an expert on colony nesting birds, and he said the bird probably came from a large refuge in central Minnesota, where there was a huge population of white pelicans. Their numbers were increasing, which might be why so many nest in our part of the state now.

In early summer, 2004, heavy storms destroyed many nests in the Horicon Marsh. All of a sudden, the pelicans moved north and hundreds settled in Little Sturgeon Bay. We drove down and Roy got photos of many birds close to the shoreline.

Some local sports fishermen are concerned that these birds are eating some of their game fish. The white pelicans do not dive like the cormorants do; they consume smaller fish closer to the surface. In fact, several birds will often gather to corral the fish into shallow water, where pelicans can catch them by just dipping their beaks down a foot or so.

Pelicans feed their young with small fish, crayfish and salamanders. The young stay in the nest for about two to two and a half weeks. The pure white plumage doesn’t develop until their second year. Some of the birds we saw at Little Sturgeon had gray necks, and we wondered if they were youngsters.

Stop and look up when these magnificent birds soar above you. Watch how they disappear when they turn, then suddenly appear again. We only get to see this for a few months each year.