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Great Lakes Article:

White pelicans staging a comeback

Gone for more than 100 years, birds set up nests in Green Bay, Horicon Marsh

Milwuakee Journal Sentinel
Aug. 6, 2002

Green Bay - From the shore, tiny Cat Island is nothing more than a sandy mound off the shipping channel in Green Bay, with little foliage and a few bare tree trunks.

But a visit there feels like stepping into a prehistoric era: Hundreds of large-winged creatures soar and swoop overhead; on the ground, orange-skinned babies hatch from large eggs in dirt nests.

Though lizard-like, these inhabitants aren't dinosaurs.

They're young pelicans, back in Wisconsin after more than a century. They're not the ubiquitous brown shorebird you've seen on a Florida vacation. They're bigger, brighter and a little harder to find.

White pelicans were seen in the state at least as early as the 1600s on Lake Winnebago, by French Jesuits, but it is not known whether the birds were nesting or just passing through, said Tom Erdman, curator of the Richter Museum of Natural History in Green Bay.

A second record documents a nesting colony in the 1880s at the appropriately named Pelican Lake in Oneida County. But after that - at least until a few years ago - pelicans were no longer heard of in Wisconsin.

Their demise was probably a result of increased settlement and gunpowder, Erdman said, adding that large birds were most often the victims of hunters.

"If you only get one bullet, you're going to shoot the biggest thing you can find," he said.

From the Dakotas

So white pelicans, with their 8-foot wing spans and long, orange beaks that scoop up fish, disappeared from the state. But in recent years, they began moving back from growing populations in western Minnesota, the Dakotas and Canada. The birds, which can weigh up to 17 pounds, migrate to mid-Atlantic states for the winter.

The first recorded young were born here in 1995, and this year Erdman counted about 185 nests, home to about 550 birds. That number is down considerably from 2001's high of 250 nests, a fact Erdman attributes to a harsh spring.

Statewide estimates are hard to come by, but the birds have also been seen in Marquette County and along the Mississippi River. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that 1,200 birds, including young, are living on Horicon Marsh.

But the white pelicans' presence is still a surprise to most people, experts say.

Boaters entering Green Bay from the Fox River have to pass by Cat Island, but few stop to take an up-close view of the birds.

Travelers on Highway 49 near Horicon Marsh also often see white pelicans without realizing what they are - and are incredulous when told, said Bill Volkert, wildlife educator and naturalist for the state Department of Natural Resources at Horicon Marsh.

"People are just astounded when they see we have pelicans in Wisconsin," he said.

Astounded but excited.

Birders are thrilled to have pelicans back in the state, said Daryl Christensen, vice president for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology.

"Your average birder likes big birds," he said. "They're visible, they're noisy, they look neat and they fly in formations."

And the pelicans are certainly unique.

The young are born "naked," in what look like orange wet suits. Although many species incubate their eggs with heat from their abdomens, pelicans use a more primitive method, half squatting, half sitting on the nest, warming their young with webbed feet.

After several weeks, the birds become stumbling, feathery balls before maturing into adults with black-tipped wings, living up to 30 years.

Scooping their meals

Although the birds favor Cat Island for its isolation from predators such as raccoons and coyotes, the surrounding shallows also are perfect for fishing.

Unlike the brown pelican, which dives for its food, white pelicans use their pouched bills to dip for fish near the surface, something that's very interesting to watch, Erdman said.

The birds will swim in formation and herd fish to shore or to the middle of the flock if in open water. Then they dip and come up with lunch, unknowingly doing human fishers a big favor by skimming off the top of the lake up to 4 pounds of rough fish rather than game fish, Erdman said.

Last year, 300 pelicans were born on the island, but Erdman said he would be lucky to count 200 this year, again because of the long, chilly spring.

Still, survival rates in Wisconsin tend to be better than in Western states. An average pelican will lay about two eggs at a time, and on Cat Island, at least one usually survives. In Utah and Nevada, Erdman said, the average is closer to 0.5 young per nesting attempt.

It's just one of many signs that conditions for white pelicans are good in the state and that they will stick around.

The white pelican will become a common species in Wisconsin within the next decade, Christensen said, and Erdman guessed that before long the pelicans would spread to all the Great Lakes states.

That's good news for bird lovers such as Tom Meyer, who helps Erdman tag young birds for identification and saw one of the first native Wisconsin pelicans hatch several years ago.

Meyer, secretary and treasurer for the Little Suamico Ornithological Station in Hilbert, said he helps with the birds because he wants to see them stick around and is intrigued by the majestic manner in which they sit on their nests, swim through the bay and take flight.

"It's just awesome when you see the whole flock like that, set their wings and glide," he said, nodding upward, where dozens of adults flew against the blue sky.

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