“A funny old bird is a pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belican.
Food for a week
He can hold in his beak,
But I don't know how the helican”
This popular pelican poem, written by American poet and humorist Dixon Lanier Merritt in 1910 was a newspaper editor for Nashville’s morning newspaper the Tennessean and President of the American Press Humorists Association. He was also a founding member of the Tennessee Ornithological Society, so Mr. Merritt, the humorist and talented poet who penned the oft quoted (and misquoted) pelican limerick, had a love for nature, too. In fact, a nature center at the Tennessee Cedars of Lebanon State Park is named after him, the Merritt Nature Center.
I first became acquainted with the pelican in the early 1980s when a high school friend of mine took a trip to Florida for a week of springtime sun and fun. Standing beside the Atlantic Ocean at sunrise along the Miami coast, my attention was distracted by the aerial antics of dozens of brown pelicans at a nearby marina.
The birds, obviously hunting for breakfast, were diving into the surf from astonishing heights in a dizzying mass of asynchronous assaults. Their death defying dives into the ocean were precise. Each bird, upon deciding to dive, folded their wings over the backs of their bodies and, just before striking the surface of the ocean, stretched their necks and beaks forward and in knife-like fashion pierced the water. Momentarily disappearing beneath the surface, each pelican would pop back up to resurface, float on their bellies like a duck, and consume their fish meals.
We Minnesotans can watch pelicans here at home, too, but not the species I observed along Florida’s coastline. Our species differ from the brown pelican in both appearance and feeding behavior. Minnesota’s pelicans are considerably larger than brown pelicans and are almost completely white, save for their yellowish bills and all their black primary and most of the secondary feathers of their wings. Our pelican is the American white pelican.
My introduction to this species of pelican came in the most unlikely of places and circumstance: North Dakota. Specifically, Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which is near the tiny farming community of Woodworth about 40 miles northwest of Jamestown and nestled amongst the beautiful rolling grassy topography pocked full of wetlands that’s known as the Prairie Pothole Region of the Northern Great Plains.
While spending the first of my three summers in Woodworth conducting my undergraduate and graduate wildlife research work, I was thankfully roped into a day’s worth of work at the refuge’s pelican nesting colony in order to band pelicans, mostly flightless youngsters, with aluminum leg bands. The banding effort and research project was organized by the late St. Cloud State University professor Dr. Al Grewe.
Few juvenile featherless birds are more homely than pelican chicks are. They reminded me of pigs with beaks. Huddling together in “pelican pods”, the groups of chicks shuffled along as if a single organism as I’d approach a pod to begin the task of gasping the leg of one of the unfortunate perimeter pelicans to quickly affix a band onto their thick black lower leg. Years later I helped DNR staff and volunteers with another pelican banding project on a Lake of the Woods island nesting colony.
Adult American white pelicans are beautiful birds capable of soaring to impossible heights in near endless columns of ascending spiraling birds as they ride the air currents, rarely flapping their wings. They hunt for food as a team, swimming together in frontal formations to drive schools of fish or larval salamanders into shallow bays of lakes and wetlands where they can more easily scoop up their prey and feed.
Raising their young together in large nesting colonies on secluded shores, peninsulas, and islands, American white pelicans are among the most unique of Minnesota’s waterbirds as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane likes to hear from his readers. Email him your favorite outdoors experiences and wildlife encounters at email@example.com.