White pelicans staging a comeback
Gone for more than 100 years, birds set up nests in
Green Bay, Horicon Marsh
By LEITA WALKER
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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.