White pelicans extend their Great Lakes range, study finds

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American white pelican Ontario. Image: Scott Butner, Government of Ontario

By Eric Freedman

The American white pelican has established a nest-hold in western Lake Erie for the first time, with prospects of future territorial expansion into lakes Huron and Ontario, according to a new study.

The species “is undergoing a dramatic expansion of its breeding range in North America,” the study published in the journal Ontario Birds said. “The nesting on Lake Erie, so far from the colony sites in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, seems unusual. Why such a large dispersal from the nearest breeding colony 550 km (340 miles) away?”

Historically, the birds breed in the Prairie provinces, western Minnesota, extreme northwestern Ontario, North Dakota and South Dakota. Elsewhere in the Great Lakes region, the birds also nest at Lake of the Woods on the Ontario-Minnesota border and at Ontario’s Lake Nipigon and Lac Seul.

Now they’re spreading eastward.

American white pelican flying. Image: Ingrid Taylar, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

That distance “is and is not unusual,” said study co-author D.V. Chip Weseloh, a retired Great Lakes waterbird specialist with the Canadian Wildlife Service. “Pelicans are strange birds and will range far and wide hundreds of miles to feed,” a feat documented with radio transmitters.

“They do have a reputation of wandering widely. Within that species, going 500 miles isn’t that usual,” Weseloh said.

With its 9-foot wingspan, the American white pelican is one of North America’s largest birds and feeds primarily on fish, according to the Audubon Society.

The overall population declined through the first half of the 1900s but has grown substantially since the 1970s. It’s protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List categorizes it as a species of least concern.

Adults have no major predators, although bald eagles sometimes kill young pelicans, Weseloh said.

The new study called the American white pelican “a rare vagrant” to western Lake Erie until 2014, when sightings became more common. In 2016, researchers discovered eggs and nests on Big Chicken Island and Middle Sister Island in Canadian waters, confirming their breeding status in Lake Erie.

It was the first known nesting for the species in the lower Great Lakes.

Scientists combined visits to the islands with offshore photographs.

For example, while criss-crossing Middle Sister Island to survey cormorants, researchers “came across 24 abandoned pelican nests with cold eggs and/or eggshells,” the study said. “The trees and underbrush were dense enough that adult pelicans would have had to walk in from the beach to access their nests in the forest.”

The discovery of the nests was happenstance, Weseloh said.

Study co-author David Moore of the Canadian Wildlife Service “was just doing normal routine monitoring of cormorants” on Middle Sister and stumbled on this abandoned pelican colony, he said.

As for Big Chicken, independent ornithology researcher V. Robert Tymstra had spotted pelicans in the area. He then followed up on the sightings by chartering a motorized Zodiac to scout out the island, according to the study, which he co-authored. The other authors were independent researcher James Ludwig and Doug Crump of Carleton University.

Big Chicken is a small, barren, low-lying cobblestone island. Middle Sister is larger and heavily forested. Herring gulls and cormorants regularly nest on both. Both are west of Pelee Island, the lake’s largest island a popular tourism spot.

As for further territorial expansion, the study says it is “perhaps only a matter of time” before American white pelicans start nesting in Lake Ontario and Lake Huron. “Both of those lakes have seemingly very similar habitat, remote small rocky islands with other colonial waterbirds.”

The pelican nests almost exclusively on islands, and “there are oodles of potential nest sites in Lake Huron, Weseloh said, although the stock of some fish has crashed in that lake. Lake Ontario also has islands suitable for nest, along with ample food supplies.

Although pelicans and cormorants “both eat whatever they can catch” and compete for some of the same fish species, they hunt in different ways, he said. Cormorants dive for their prey while pelicans herd or shepherd their prey into shallow waters and “pick them off.”

47 thoughts on “White pelicans extend their Great Lakes range, study finds

  1. I saw around 40 white pelicans on a sandbar at Cedar Point National Wildlife Refuge in Ohio / Lake Erie this past week. I see a few a year if I’m lucky. It was incredible to see so many gathered in one spot.

  2. Seen a f lock of at least 40 in Munising Mi. There formation was amazing . We watched them for at least a half hour. Never ever seen them before. We were on a small lake as they flew over. They must have been on the hunt for fish. Read up on them and found it very interesting. Hope to see them again.

  3. Saw three very large white pelicans on the Saint Mary’s River 20 miles southeast of Sault Ste Marie last week.

  4. Just watched a pair of White Pelicans flying over the Zilwaukee Bridge heading toward the Saginaw Bay.

  5. We saw an American White Pelican on Rose Lake between Tustin and LeRoy Mi, just 15 miles south of Cadillac. At first we thought it was an eagle soaring above us until we saw the white back. Later saw him just swimming by himself. First time for our lake!

  6. Pretty darn sure we just saw a flight of 15-20 flying south, skimming low to the water, down the Detroit River, between the Canadian shore and the shipping channels just N of the N split of the Amherstburg and Livingston shipping channels, East of Grosse Ile, MI, about two? Miles N. Of Amherstburg, Ontario. They encountered a large white northbound Searay or similar boat and climbed high above the water to skip over the boat. Annnnd, that’s my provocative anecdote for the day.

  7. My husband and I saw a white pelican floating on Gull Lake in Richland, MI this morning.

  8. Saw a pod of 15 or so American White Pelicans in Rabbit Bay of Lake Superior’s Keweenaw bay this morning. They are huge birds.

  9. Was out fishing this evening in southern lower Michigan, north of Elkhart Indian, May 23, 2021, and 4 White Pelicans flew over. Didn’t think I would see a pelican in this area.

  10. One white pelican flying over St. Joseph river in near Mottville Mi. on May 23, 2021, at 3:40 in the afternoon.

  11. Just saw 8 or so white pelicans gliding over Point Place which is on the south western shore of Lake Erie in Toledo Ohio. Beautiful site.

  12. I saw 3 American White Pelicans, all with the bump on their beaks, this morning 5/2/21 at 9:50am. They were traveling south on northern Lake Huron from Horseshoe Bay towards the Straits of Mackinac. Majestic in flight. A real treat!

  13. We saw about 10 this evening in Vermilion, Ohio. They caught our eye as they were on the water and then flew west.

  14. Saw 2 yesturday just south of Grosse Ile MI, they were with a flock of White Swans in the water feeding! As I flew over I couldn’t believe my what my eyes were seeing.

  15. We live Downriver, but we saw a lot of them yesterday in the Shiawassee Wildlife Refuge up by Saginaw. We spoke to a bird watcher there who said she’s seen them the last four years. Very exciting!

  16. Saw about 10 flying in from Saginaw Bay in Bay City, MI yesterday. First time I have seen them here.

  17. We saw at least 15 yesterday in Port Clinton,OH. They were flying in V formation. Awesome sight! Never seen here before.

  18. This summer 2020 and 2019 saw many flying around the Charity Islands off of Au Gres, Very big birds.

  19. Cited a single adult and one pair of American white pelicans near hen Island feeding in lake Erie. Cited a second pair near Colchester Point. Canada flying over lake Erie on July 3rd 2020. Marvelous and thrilling to see these wonderful birds.

  20. We saw about nine of them in Searson Bay, Lake St Joseph in Northern Ontario. This is almost to the end of the most northerly road in Ontario. Majestic. They table advantage of the ground effect, soaring just inches off the surface of the lake.

  21. Three white pelicans off of Park Point in Duluth, Minnesota on Lake Superior at 9am 6/24/2020.

  22. Spotted close to a dozen white pelians off route 2 near oak harbor exit flying over a Lake Eie inlet.

  23. About 18 white pelicans at the Killsnake Wildlife Area east of Chilton, WI about 8 PM.

  24. White Pelican, alone, in Arcadia Marsh Preserve, Arcadia, MI today. Flew in among flock of Mute Swans which were territorial.

  25. I observed a group of about 65 immature American White Pelicans at St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge south of Tallahassee, FL this morning (June 8, 2020). (see eBird post). I’m wondering where the nearest nesting area is… it seems early for immature birds. Thanks!

  26. I just spotted 2 White Pelicans in Michigan at Harrisville Harbor on Lake Huron.

  27. We spotted one by itself on Whitmore Lake, MI this evening (6/4/2020). This is a lake 10 min north of Ann Arbor.

  28. Just saw 10 White American Pelicans on
    Lake Macatawa ..Holland MI

    Have never seen that before

  29. 10 pelicans were hanging out in Port Sanilac on May 3rd. It was our first sighting ever, very cool!

  30. On April 3, 2020, 8:30 a.m. I spotted 18 White Pelicans on Donnel Lake in Vandalia, MI.

  31. Today we counted over 200 Pelicans in the line swimming in a herding behavior on Lake Vermilion in Danville Illinois. We have seen the last couple of years groups of around 50 but quite a large group is feeding here today!

  32. I just saw a white pelican in Michigan City Indiana today. November 21 on the shore of Lake Michigan. Have lived here over 30 yrs and have never seen one here before.

  33. Spotted one in Cazenovia Creek in South Buffalo, NY USA…they definitely coming eastward.

  34. They’re establishing a nesting colony in Shiawasee wildlife refuge in Michigan. I have pictures of them all together. Approximately 26 adults and as many youngsters

  35. We saw a white american pelican at chimney bluffs lake Ontario. Didnt see a nest but surprised to even see a bird. Never have seen one on lake Ontario.

  36. I was at Big chick island today and saw a healthy group of the white pelicans, approx 40-50. Have pics but can not get them to post here. If the author would like more pics, post a request here and i will get them to you

  37. Corrcction: they have been nesting on Charity Island in Saginaw Bay, Lake Huron for several years.

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