- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.