Those great white fish trawlers, American white pelicans, have returned to their summer paradise along our Mississippi River shore and are gobbling up local sushi with voracious appetites. They occupy the only known pelican nesting colony on the Upper Mississippi River. Live streaming Internet video of the colony is available at Stewards of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge website at www.stewardsumrr.org.
White pelicans arrived in our area in the early 1990s. Small groups lazily summered on the sand bars. In 2007, the first nesting colony occurred on two islands in Pool 13 within the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge and 50 young were produced.
The colony has expanded their nesting territory to five islands that harbor over 2,500 adults and about 1,000 nests.
There are also several thousand non-nesting pelicans scattered along hundreds of river miles.
Other waterbird species nesting within the colony include double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, great egrets and ring-billed gulls.
These islands are eroding and efforts are underway to restore them and to re-construct others that disappeared long ago.
The colony attracts a lot of attention from passing boaters that may smell their fragrance before they see them.
The stench of ammonia and rotting fish emanates from the islands due to the excrement and sun-baked fish leftovers. Flood waters in late May resulted in pelican babies being swept downstream.
Bald eagles seized upon this opportunity by gathering up these tender plump morsels and feeding them to their young.
Nesting colonies are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act but the birds have a self-defense mechanism involving frontal and rear assaults.
If you approach a young pelican, they regurgitate an undigested oily fish soup and propel a stream of liquid excrement.
These defense tools combined with the powerful stench are usually successful in deterring human intruders.
A pelican’s nest is a slight depression in the sand often rimmed with a few sticks or next to a log.
They lay two to three white eggs and the naked hatchlings are pink. The clumsy youngsters grow fast and grunt or croak often. When parent birds return to the colony at feeding time, there is a frenzy of hungry chicks fighting for the first morsel.
Pelicans may weigh 15 pounds with a 9-foot wing span and stand 5 feet tall.
They have black wing tips with a large yellow/orange pouch and can live for 10 years. A knob protrudes on the upper bill in adults during the early nesting season.
Squadrons of pelicans routinely depart the colony to patrol the skies over Clinton.
These giant cruisers soar the air currents at great heights and often venture miles inland. Solitary scouts often cruise low along the city shoreline.
White pelicans are primarily fish eaters but also enjoy a tasty frog or salamander.
They don’t torpedo dive from the sky like their cousin brown pelicans. Instead, they swim in a group to herd fish and scoop them up in their oversized pouches. A pelican can eat several pounds of fish per day.
Complaints from local fishermen blame pelicans and cormorants for the lack of fish in the river.
However, decades of fish monitoring have shown that neither pelicans nor cormorants have a significant impact upon Mississippi River fish populations.
White pelicans migrate to the Lower Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast during winter.
Their summer paradise here has become a traditional nesting and loafing site.
Visit Clinton’s Mississippi River shoreline and enjoy the spectacular flights of the American white pelican.
Ed Britton is a Wildlife Refuge Manager for the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife & Fish Refuge and volunteer at Bickelhaupt Arboretum.