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American White Pelican

Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
Minnesota Seasonal Status:

A regular breeding resident and migrant; regular in winter, as birds linger in the state before migrating south. The American White Pelican was a common species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).

North American Breeding Distribution and Relative Abundance:

Primarily restricted to the interior of western North America, the American White Pelican breeds in scattered and often widely dispersed colonies from British Columbia east to southwestern Ontario and south through the western United States. A few year-round populations are found along the Texas Gulf coast and in central Mexico. The core of the species’ breeding population is located in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Manitoba (Figure 1).

Conservation Concern:
Conservation Status Score 9

Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 9/20 by Partners in Flight and designated a species of Moderate Concern by the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan. Officially listed as a Special Concern Species in Minnesota since 1984, designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and designated a Stewardship Species by Audubon Minnesota.

Life History

A medium-distance migrant that winters on coastal waters and, rarely, on inland lakes and rivers.


Feeds primarily on rough fish caught by dipping its bill and scooping the prey into its pouch. Often employs a cooperative feeding strategy, where a group of pelicans drive fish into shallow waters, where they are easier to catch. Pelicans also are adept at stealing fish from other waterbirds, including other pelicans.


A shallow depression constructed in bare soil, sand, or gravel; may be lined with adjacent vegetation. A colonial nesting species.

American White Pelican American White Pelican. Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
© Rebecca S. Field
See caption below Figure 1.

Breeding distribution and relative abundance of the American White Pelican in North America based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey, 2011–2015 (Sauer et al. 2017).

Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution*

One of the largest birds in North America, the American White Pelican has a rich and long history of place-names and accounts from Native Americans, early explorers, and naturalists. They provide a glimpse of its former distribution and abundance and its virtual disappearance at the end of the 19th century. DiMatteo (2016) details these accounts in an excellent and comprehensive history of the American White Pelican in Minnesota, dating from the late 1700s to the present. The following includes a few highlights from his work.

The preponderance of geographical places that are named for the pelican is testament to the species’ presence in the state long before European settlers arrived. Lake Shetek, in southwestern Murray County, for example, incorporates the original Ojibwe term for pelican, shetek. More than 200 miles to the north, Pelican Island in Leech Lake also was named by the Ojibwe in recognition of the lake’s nesting American White Pelicans. Then there are the Pelican River, Pelican Point in Heron Lake, six Pelican lakes strewn across northern Minnesota, and the town of Pelican Rapids!

Although such place-names provide a clue to the pelican’s abundance and distribution, DiMatteo (2016) found it difficult to accurately assess the bird’s historical status and distribution in the state. Prior to 1850, various accounts make mention of its presence on Lake of the Woods, on the Red River, and throughout west-central and north-central Minnesota. In the latter half of the 19th century, several accounts also broadly describe the species as a common summer breeding resident (e.g., Bullis 1892; Hatch 1874, 1881; Farrar 1880; Roberts 1932). Specific references to nesting colonies are uncommon, but Roberts (1919, 1932) identified the following: (1) a colony on Pelican Point on Heron Lake, which was abandoned in the 1870s but was reported active again in 1914; (2) a colony on the Mustinka River in Grant County, which was abandoned in 1878; (3) a colony on Pelican Lake in Grant County, which was present until 1895; (4) a colony on Lake Shetek in 1899; and (5) a colony in the vicinity of Leech Lake in 1902. As Roberts (1932) points out, however, “these reports were more or less in the nature of rumors and, as no actual nests were found, were probably based on the presence of non-breeding birds, spending the summer on various lakes.”

Most visitors to the state in the early 1900s commented on the pelican’s dramatic decline and virtual absence from the state (e.g., Chapman 1908; Bent 1922). The last and only confirmed nesting account was in 1904, when two young, pre-fledged pelicans were shot on the shore of what is now known as Big Sandy Lake in Aitkin County (Lano 1922).

Factors responsible for the pelican’s demise nearly 100 years ago included human disturbance at nesting colonies and the loss of suitable nesting sites (Knopf and Evans 2004). Although some pelican skins appeared in eastern markets, the birds were not a real target of the millinery trade. As Bent (1922) noted, “the demand did not seem to warrant the risk involved.”

In addition to their disappearance as a breeding species, sightings of migrant pelicans heading to and from their breeding grounds in Canada continued to be a rare enough occurrence in Minnesota that birders and wildlife biologists often made special note of the birds they did observe. Lee (1951), for example, documented numerous records in the spring of 1950 of flocks numbering from 5 to 2,000 birds. That same fall, he documented an unprecedented count of at least 15,000 birds at Heron Lake in Jackson County. The birds were still unusual enough in 1966 that wildlife biologist Bob Chesness (1967) wrote about the spectacle of watching 3,500 to 4,000 pelicans on a small wetland in Watonwan County in October. But it was 1968 before there was undisputable evidence that the birds were once again breeding in the state. Approximately 65 to 75 pairs were found nesting on an island in Marsh Lake in the Lac qui Parle game refuge (Breckenridge 1968).

In the years that followed, this small colony grew exponentially to support an average of 13,365 breeding pairs during the 10-year period from 2004/05 to 2015 (Hamilton and Cuthbert 2016). Other colonies also gradually appeared, including colonies on Lake of the Woods (Hirsch 1981), Leech Lake (Mortensen 2000; Mortensen and Ringle 2007), Pigeon Lake in Meeker County, and Minnesota Lake in Faribault County.

In recent years the statewide population appears to have stabilized at 16,000 to 22,000 nesting pairs breeding at 15 to 17 sites across the western two-thirds of the state (Hamilton and Cuthbert 2016). Observations of nonbreeding birds are very common throughout the state during the summer months, as are large concentrations of migrant birds at staging areas. Fredrickson has done an exceptional job of documenting a major staging site at the head of Lake Pepin from 2009 to 2014. During these years, the site supported 1,800 to 5,000 birds from late summer through fall (Fredrickson 2010, 2011, 2014, 2015).

The initial return of the American White Pelican to Minnesota waters is attributed to the growth and expansion of the Chase Lake colony in east-central North Dakota. Established as early as 1905, when 500 adults were reported nesting on the lake, the site has distinguished itself as the largest American White Pelican colony in North America, supporting just over 17,000 nesting pairs (Sovada et al. 2005; Drilling 2015). Because pelicans do not breed until at least their third year, and perhaps their fifth, young, nonbreeding adults often wander over wide areas until they reach sexual maturity (Knopf and Evans 2004; DiMatteo 2016). Although many will eventually return to their natal breeding colony, if the site is already at carrying capacity, they will explore other suitable sites.

The growing abundance of pelicans was well documented during the MNBBA. Participants reported 1,270 American White Pelican records in 14.7% (697/4,749) of the surveyed atlas blocks and in 16.9% (395/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was confirmed in only 13 blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). Statewide, however, pelicans were observed in 67 of Minnesota’s 87 counties, a sight that would have been unimaginable 100 years ago! Breeding evidence was documented in a total of 11 counties (2 blocks straddled 2 counties each: Lac qui Parle/Big Stone and Dakota/Goodhue).

The robustness of the atlas data was aided immeasurably by the addition of data from the 2010 statewide survey of American White Pelicans and Double-crested Cormorants by Wires and her colleagues (2011). Their survey data insured that known breeding colonies in difficult to reach localities were represented in the atlas. Readers will also note that all pelican records were coded either as Observed or as Confirmed (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). Although volunteers initially coded over 200 records as Possible, and a handful as Probable, they all were recoded to Observed records. All observations away from the known breeding colonies were likely either foraging breeding adults from nearby colonies or nonbreeding adults.

*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.

See caption below Figure 2.

Breeding distribution of the American White Pelican in Minnesota based on the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009 – 2013).

Print Map
Pie chart showing summary statistics of records by breeding status category Figure 3.

Summary statistics of observations by breeding status category for the American White Pelican in Minnesota based on all blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding statusBlocks (%)Priority Blocks (%)
Confirmed13 (0.3%)1 (0.0%)
Probable0 (0.0%)0 (0.0%)
Possible0 (0.0%)0 (0.0%)
Observed684 (14.4%)394 (16.9%)
Total697 (14.7%)395 (16.9%)
Table 1.

Summary statistics for the American White Pelican observations by breeding status category for all blocks and priority blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding Habitat

The American White Pelican is a colonial nesting species. In the northern Great Plains, most colonies are located on islands found on freshwater lakes, rivers, or impoundments. Nesting islands are typically flat with little or no vegetation and may be located 50 km or more from favorable foraging sites (Figure 4). The latter include a wide range of shallow water habitats in marshes, lakes, or rivers that supply an abundance of forage fish.

Colonies usually support hundreds to thousands of breeding birds. An examination of nearly 60 colonies across North America in the 1980s showed an average colony size of 957 breeding pairs. Within each colony, there may be several, smaller subcolonies averaging about 150 nests each (Knopf and Evans 2004). Pelicans often nest in association with other waterbirds, particularly Ring-billed Gulls and Double-crested Cormorants.

In Minnesota, pelicans find suitable habitat in a wide range of landscapes, from the intensively cultivated farmlands of south-central Minnesota to the remote islands on Lake of the Woods. As long as suitable islands are available, lakes as small as 114 hectares (e.g., Pigeon Lake in Meeker County) to as large as 435,000 hectares (Lake of the Woods) may be selected.

Minnesota’s largest colony site, Marsh Lake, is an impounded river floodplain in the upper reaches of the Minnesota River. Over time, the birds have nested on four different islands and one peninsula at the site. Nesting densities within the colonies approximate 1,000 nests per ha (DiMatteo 2016). Nesting islands located in the middle of the river tend to be more low-lying than sites nearer to or on the mainland. DiMatteo (2016) found that annual variability in nest site selection and reproductive success are highly correlated with the river’s flow levels in April. When river levels are high in the spring, the low-elevation sites in the middle of the river are flooded, forcing the birds to select the higher-elevation sites close to or on the mainland. The birds experience lower reproductive success on the mainland due, in part, to higher rates of nest predation.

In recent times, pelicans have attempted nesting at one other mainland site, in south-central Minnesota in Faribault County. Discovered in 1994, the birds were using an island in Minnesota Lake in 1994 (Fall 1994). During the 2010 nesting season, high water levels forced the birds to relocate to farmland on the adjacent shore. They attempted to renest at the same site in 2011, establishing a colony of nearly 1,500 nesting pairs. Unfortunately a farmer who was renting the land destroyed many of the nests, forcing the adults to abandon the colony. Having violated the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the farmer was subsequently sentenced and fined $12,500 (U.S. Department of Justice 2011).

Not only are pelicans very sensitive to disturbance, they adapt quickly to changing conditions, a frequent occurrence in the Great Plains. Their low site tenacity is an adaptation that enables them to relocate if a site becomes unsuitable due to changing water levels, disturbance by humans or predators, or changes in food availability (Knopf and Evans 2004).

See caption below Figure 4.

Typical breeding habitat of the American White Pelican in Minnesota (© Google Earth, Marsh Lake Island).

Population Abundance

To date, a comprehensive assessment of the distribution and size of American White Pelican colonies throughout North America has not been conducted. Efforts to assess the size of the population have been incomplete at best.

In 1933, Thompson estimated the continental breeding population was a minimum of 30,000 adults nesting at 7 primary sites. In 1964, the estimate was approximately 40,000 breeding adults (Lies and Behle 1966). By 1985, the estimate had risen to 109,000 breeding adults nesting in 55 colonies (Sidle et al. 1985). The most recent estimate was compiled in 2005 and generated an estimate of 134,000 breeding adults at 42 colonies (King and Anderson 2005). Unfortunately each of these estimates is only a rough approximation. Many colonies have not been surveyed for years, and the status of even major, well-established colonies can change quickly.

Although biologists tracked the state’s largest pelican colony at Marsh Lake, on the border of Lac qui Parle and Big Stone County, for decades, a comprehensive, statewide survey was first launched during the 2004 and 2005 breeding seasons. It has been repeated approximately every five years (Wires et al. 2006; Wires et al. 2011; Hamilton and Cuthbert 2016). Additional surveys were added in 2011 and 2012 to assess the potential impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on Minnesota waterbirds that winter in Gulf coast waters. The statewide survey was specifically designed to inventory Double-crested Cormorant and pelican nesting colonies. Since cormorant control began at selected sites in the state in 2005, it was important to collect baseline data on cormorant populations and to assess the impacts of control efforts on co-nesting species, including pelicans.

Data from the past five surveys are presented in Table 2. Statewide, the Minnesota population of pelicans has ranged from 15,610 nests in 2004/2005 to a high of 22,506 nests in 2011, or a breeding population of approximately 31,220 adults to 45,012 adults. In any given year, the colonies at Marsh Lake contribute from 63% to 84% of the total statewide breeding population. The decline observed in 2015 was attributed largely to the absence of nesting on two key sites on Marsh Lake due to water level fluctuations (Hamilton and Cuthbert 2016). These estimates are of breeding adults only and do not include the large number of nonbreeding birds that are observed throughout the state each summer.

Even if the population estimate for North America is low, the continental significance of Minnesota’s breeding population is clear. Marsh Lake is considered one of the largest breeding colonies in North America, second only to the colony at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota. The most recent census conducted at Chase Lake documented a total of 17,217 nesting pairs, or 34,434 adults (Drilling 2015). The importance of Minnesota to the continental population of White Pelicans is also obvious in Figure 1.

Pelican populations throughout North America were on the decline from the late 1800s through the first half of the 20th century (Knopf and Evans 2004). Since then, they have been gradually expanding, essentially growing in numbers at well-established colonies and recolonizing portions of their previous range (Wires et al. 2006). Although the federal Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) is not always an effective monitoring tool for colonial-nesting species, including pelicans, Minnesota BBS data clearly demonstrate the rather dramatic population increase since the survey began in 1967, with numbers increasing at an annual rate of 12.60% per year (Sauer et al. 2017)!

A long-lived species with low annual reproduction, the American White Pelican took many years to recover from the persecution it experienced in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Legal protection has certainly aided the species’ recovery, but other factors have contributed as well, especially broad-scale efforts to protect and restore wetland habitats. Today, many of the large colonies are located on state or federally protected wildlife refuges. The rapid expansion of the aquaculture industry in the southeastern United States may also be improving the overwinter survival of birds that winter along the Gulf coast (King and Anderson 2005).

See caption below. Table 2.

American White Pelican breeding colonies and nest counts in Minnesota from 2004/05 to 2015 (Source: Hamilton and Cuthbert 2016).


Partners in Flight (2017) has assigned the American White Pelican a Continental Concern Score of 9/20 and the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan designated it a species of Moderate Concern (Kushlan et al. 2002). In Minnesota the species has been officially classified as a state Special Concern Species since 1984 (Coffin and Pfannmuller 1988) and has been designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2015). Recognizing the continental importance of the Minnesota population, Audubon Minnesota identified the American White Pelican as one of 12 Minnesota Stewardship Species (Pfannmuller 2012), underlining the state’s unique responsibility to insure the long-term sustainability of the pelican population.

Given the importance of the northern Great Plains to breeding pelicans, the potential impacts of warming temperatures on the region’s wetlands are a concern. Climate change models predict that the number of wetlands in the region could decline by two-thirds, having a direct impact on the availability of suitable foraging sites (North American Bird Conservation Initiative 2010). In addition, rain events may be intense, leading to more frequent flooding of critical nesting sites. An analysis of the potential impacts of climate change on the American White Pelican predicted a loss of 91% of its current summer breeding range from 2000 to 2080 and resulted in its classification as “climate endangered” (Langham et al. 2015National Audubon Society 2016).

In the short-term, protection of nesting colonies from human disturbance is one of the most important management concerns. Pelicans are sensitive to disturbance, particularly early in the nesting season, when an entire colony may abandon their eggs and young chicks. Given the proportion of the continental population that is concentrated in a small number of colonies, such disturbances can have a major impact on reproductive success in any given year.

Unfortunately, as pelican numbers increase, there are more opportunities for conflicts with landowners on sites that are privately owned. The incident in Meeker County in 2011 is one such example. There also are an increasing number of voices expressing concern about the impact of pelicans on local fish populations. Diet studies, however, have repeatedly demonstrated that the birds’ diet is comprised primarily of rough forage fish with relatively low economic value to the fishing community.

With proper protection measures in place, the spectacular sight of a flock of American White Pelicans soaring in the sky hopefully will remain a part of Minnesota’s natural heritage for years to come.

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