The great white fish trawlers, American white pelicans, have returned to their summer paradise along our Mississippi River shore. Thousands of pelicans are gobbling up local sushi with voracious appetites. They inhabit the only known pelican nesting colony on the Upper Mississippi River. You can watch live-streaming Internet video of this colony at the Stewards of the Upper Mississippi River Refuge website at www.stewardsumrr.org.
The pelicans share their paradise with other waterbird species that nest on a chain of islands located north of Clinton within the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge. Other species include double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, great egrets and cattle egrets.
White pelicans initially arrived here in the early 1990s. Small groups lazily summered along the Mississippi River sandbars. Their population gradually increased to several hundred. In 2007, the first local nesting colony occurred on two islands with 50 young produced.
The pelican colony currently has about 2,500 adults and has expanded nesting territory to several adjacent islands. A June 2 survey counted 1,385 nests that contained 1,623 young and 1,918 eggs. In addition, there are several thousand non-nesting pelicans scattered along hundreds of miles of the Upper Mississippi River.
The nesting colony is located on the main channel of the Mississippi River Pool 13. It attracts a lot of attention from passing boaters that may smell the colony long before they see it. An ammonia stench emanates from the islands due to the large amount of pelican excrement.
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. If that doesn’t deter you, they’ll squirt 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 2-3 white eggs and the naked hatchlings are pink. The 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, salamander or aquatic insects. 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 for the lack of fish in the river. However, long term resource monitoring studies have shown that pelicans have no significant impact upon our local fish populations.
White pelicans migrate to the Lower Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast during winter.
Their long distance journey to our shore in spring is a welcome sight to us winter weary northerners. Their summer paradise here has become a traditional nesting and loafing site. Visit the Mississippi River 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.