Expanding eastward: American White Pelican is now breeding in Wisconsin

6/26/2014 | 0

American White Pelicans near Penticton, British Columbia, by Laure Wilson Neish.

American White Pelicans near Penticton, British Columbia, by Laure Wilson Neish.

Once threatened with habitat loss and degradation, changing water levels, human disturbance, and pollution, American White Pelican today is a species that biologists say has recovered.

Each year, its population grows more than three percent, and according to a report published in the journal The Passenger Pigeon, its range is expanding eastward — and fast.

Read a summary of the summer edition of The Passenger Pigeon.

Annual spring surveys, banding returns, and a comprehensive examination of historical records, eBird data, and two Great Lakes-wide surveys of waterbird populations show that the white birds are now nesting in Wisconsin “in unprecedented numbers,” write the authors, “with the numbers of colonies and nesting pairs increasing markedly within a relatively short time frame.”

American White Pelican breeds primarily in the north-central and western United States and in western and central Canadian provinces.

Pelican occurrences in Wisconsin started increasing notably in the 1980s and dramatically in the mid-1990s, yet before 1994, when two nests were discovered on a barren island in lower Green Bay, there was no conclusive historical evidence of breeding in the state.

By 2003, however, after pelicans had started nesting at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge and two additional Green Bay islands, the number of nests in the state had increased to 907. Two years later, the number had reached 1,101. By 2013, the number of sites had reached eight, and the number of nests had climbed to 4,123.

The pelicans’ eastward movement, write the authors, led to the establishment of not only the first Mississippi River colony in the Upper Midwest, in Iowa in 2007, but also the first known nesting in the Canadian Great Lakes, on Granite Island, Lake Superior, in 2007, and Illinois’s first colony, at Woodruffs Island in 2009.

What’s more, the authors suggest that the recent increases in the state of Wisconsin may have been responsible for Michigan’s first breeding pelicans in 1999. At least 17 nests were also recorded in 2007, during the second Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas.

Read about American White Pelican in the Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas II (PDF).

A version of this story appeared in the August 2014 issue of BirdWatching magazine. Subscribe.