Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory

Citizen Science


by Jill Kunsmann

If you have frequented the shores of Lake Michigan the last several years, chances are you have seen an ever increasing number of American White Pelicans — in fact, they are becoming downright common. The big question is, Are they here to stay? 

Although Daryl Christensen, then vice president for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, predicted in 2002 that the White Pelican could become a common species in Wisconsin within the next decade, the wildlife officials of Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota might warn us not to take their presence for granted. Chase Refuge had been known for a century as the home of the largest nesting colony of American White Pelicans in North America. In May 2004, nearly 28,000 birds took off, leaving a rookery littered with eggs and chicks that did not survive. Within a year’s time, the pelicans began a slow return, but to this day, the ornithologists are puzzled as to what precipitated the sudden mass exodus.

In fact, the American White Pelican’s presence in Wisconsin has fluctuated dramatically over the centuries. As early as the 17th century, White Pelicans were reported to be common, but by the late 19th century, the state’s population was in decline, with sightings only on the Mississippi. This is likely attributed to the bird being an easy target of hunters who were supplying the burgeoning plume trade with feathers to adorn ladies’ hats. The birds certainly weren’t hunted for their culinary appeal, for their flesh was reported to have an unpleasant, oily, fish taste.

Numbers continued to dwindle in the mid-20th century, but in the 1980s, the number of occurrences started to increase, with a dramatic uptick in the 1990s. “From 2005 through 2013, the state’s pelican breeding population increased nearly 275%, reaching 4,123 nesting pairs at eight Wisconsin colony sites in 2013.” (Passenger Pigeon, Vol. 76, No. 2, 2014)

Now, in 2017 — four years later — the Wisconsin White Pelican population continues to flourish, much to the delight of bird lovers who are in awe of the bird’s eight-foot wing span, its curious appearance, and the really cool way it flies in formation. Find further information on the species.