Pelicans pause in New Richmond
Del Dorr has lived near the Willow River widespread in New Richmond for more than 20 years, and he had never seen anything quite like this.
A few dozen massive American white pelicans flew into the river’s waters on the afternoon of Friday, April 18, and stayed through Easter weekend before leaving the area on Wednesday, April 23.
According to Ryan Haffele, Wisconsin DNR wildlife biologist for St. Croix and Pierce counties, the pelicans were migrating through the area likely on their way to a nesting site in Minnesota or southern Canada. He said they likely wintered along the gulf coast or perhaps even in Mexico.
“In the last 10 to 20 years, the population and the number migrating up the Mississippi River has really been increasing,” Haffele said. “Normally they are a farther western species, like the Dakotas area, but as their population is growing they are starting to expand out, and the Mississippi River is kind of a big migration corridor for them now.”
During their stop in New Richmond, the pelicans drew hundreds of bird watching enthusiasts into the city. It’s not every day a flock of birds that size swoops into town.
“They can actually get up to 16 pounds and have a nine-foot wingspan. They are quite large birds,” Haffele said. “They are a really neat bird to watch fly. They do these soaring circles. They get up into the thermals and just soar on clear days almost like you’d see a hawk or vulture soar. But if it’s big and white, it’s usually a pelican.”
Haffele said he has seen the birds along the Mississippi River in Pierce County, and first became familiar with them when working near one of their largest nesting sites in North Dakota.
He said another trait bird watchers notice about some of the pelicans is a protrusion coming out of the top of the bill.
“It’s kind of like a hump on their bills,” Haffele said. “They only do that during the breeding season. So if you see one with a hump, that’s typically a mature adult that can breed.”
Though their numbers are growing, the American White Pelican is still a special concerned species. According to the Wisconsin DNR website, “special concern species are those species about which some problem of abundance or distribution is suspected but not yet proved.” The purpose of the classification is to prevent a species from ever becoming threatened or endangered.
The 50 or so birds that landed in New Richmond are nothing compared to the numbers of birds that gather this time of year at nesting sites.
“We don’t really have any breeding colonies around here that we know of,” Haffele said. “They do nest over on some islands in Green Bay, and they used to nest on Horicon, but I’m not sure if that one’s still active.”
Haffele said the pelicans are a “colonial nesting water bird,” which means hundreds or even thousands of birds can flock to their nesting sites.
“My guess is that a lot of birds we’re seeing down in this area are either juveniles that aren’t sexually mature yet, or just non-breeding adults, and they’ll actually hang around a lot longer, because they’re not in a hurry to get on a nest or anything like that,” Haffele said.
For more information about the bird, visit the dnr.wi.gov and type “American white pelican” into the search bar.