2005-07-30 / Columnists

Weather May Factor in Pelican Spotting on Island

Nature Notes
By Patricia Martin


Patricia Martin

I was stopped by a person with a question a couple of weeks ago. A woman visiting here pointed to a bird and said it looked like a pelican. Her response was that it couldn’t be, but it really appeared to be one. My friend asked me if this was possible. At the time, I told her that I thought it unlikely, however, after doing a bit of research and talking to Jeff Dykehouse, the State Park Naturalist, I realized that I was probably wrong. It is entirely possible that this woman saw a pelican.

The American White Pelican is one of the most distinctive birds in North America. It’s a large bird with a length of 60 inches, a wingspan of about 100, and weighing in at more than 15 pounds. These birds have an enormous bill that is orangesalmon in color and stands out on this predominantly white bird. On the upper mandible of the bill are graduated plates which are only seen in the breeding season. The outer edges of their wings are black tipped and they have short orange-red legs and feet.

In flight, pelicans alternate flapping and gliding. They have strong slow deep wing beats and will soar high on thermals. During migration, they fly in long “V” formation, otherwise they fly in straight lines.

These are mostly silent birds. On nesting grounds, they may utter a guttural croak. During nesting, White Pelicans are colonial, sometimes joining the nesting sites of the Double-crested Cormorants. The nests these birds build are on the ground and are made of built-up dirt and rubbish.

These monogamous birds produce one or two dull or chalky white elongated oval eggs more than three inches long. The incubation of the eggs is a bit more than one month and both parents help with the process. The eggs don’t usually hatch at the same time and the second baby bird hatched often dies of starvation as its older sibling gets the lion’s share of the food. After hatching, the young stay in the nest for 17 to 28 days being fed by both sexes. After fledging, the young gather in groups known as pods and continue to be fed by adults. About 10 weeks after hatching, the young have their first flight.

As one might expect, the White Pelican’s main food is fish. In addition, they will also eat salamanders and crayfish. The young eat regurgitated fish and later they will be fed fresh fish. These birds are buoyant and do not dive like the Brown Pelican for their dinners. Instead they swim along the surface and submerge their heads to catch fish. Occasionally they will fish in groups, herding schools of fish into shallow water or an enclosed area, where they scoop the fish out of the water with pouches than can hold up to three gallons of water. They generally consume about three pounds of fish per day. Generally the fish that they take is of little or no commercial value, but despite legal protection, most deaths of pelicans are because of shooting, often by fishermen thinking to protect their catch.

These birds usually spend their winters along the southern part of the west coast of the United States and Mexico and along the Gulf coast. Their summers are spent in the western half of the United States and Canada, where they breed in colonies of several hundred pairs along the west coast and on lakes. Looking on the maps at their normal distribution, their range extends to western Lake Superior.

This year, other reports of pelican sightings have occurred in Lake Michigan, some near Frankfort. Last year, they were reported west of St. Ignace and 15 of them were seen together in the Grand Haven area. One birder told me that just in the last couple of years, a number of White Pelicans have been seen regularly in Green Bay, Wisconsin. One reason that these birds may be seen in our area this year may be because of the early spring that American White Pelican we had. Many birds migrated north early this year and therefore bred and nested earlier. They have now finished their parenting duties and are doing what is referred to as post-breeding migration, traveling further north while they have free time before fall hits and they return to the California and Gulf coasts.

Weather is one thing that may have pushed them further north. Between the early hurricanes along the Gulf and the high temperatures in the central part of their range, these birds may have decided to hightail it north. You know the old tradition of going north to escape the heat. There may be other shore birds to keep an eye out for. The Ibis and Curlew Sandpipers may be coming this way. If you see either of these birds, or the pelican, please let me know.

Trish Martin is a yeararound resident of Mackinac Island, has earned a master’s degree in botany from Central Michigan University, and owns Bogan Lane Inn.

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