Loving ’em to death

MPR photo Dan Gunderson

Minnesota is home to the largest American White Pelican colony in North America.

In 1968 the pelican was nearly extinct in Minnesota, down to one known breeding pair, state Department of Natural Resources researchers say.

Now there are an estimated 50,000 white pelicans in the state. Most of the birds winter in the Gulf of Mexico and return in the spring to raise young.

About 34,000 nest on Marsh Lake, in western Minnesota. On just one island nearly a half mile long and a few hundred feet wide, about 10,000 pelicans nest along with thousands of gulls and cormorants.

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It's a bill-to-tail mass of birds and eggs and chicks. You can't take your eyes off the ground while walking because you'll step on a nest.

Researcher Jeff DiMatteo has been to the spot for about 25 years to band young pelicans He worries that the pelican colony is gaining notoriety, and attracting more birding enthusiasts and amateur photographers.

The islands on Marsh Lake are a protected sanctuary.

MPR photo Ann Arbor Miller

Trespassing on the islands can lead to citations and fines, according to Minnesota DNR Non-Game Wildlife Program Supervisor Carrol Henderson.

"Pelican colonies are at a critical stage of nesting right now, with many newly hatched chicks. Only researchers with appropriate permits may visit the island to conduct their studies," Henderson said. "Otherwise, pelicans at this stage of nesting will not tolerate trespassing by photographers or curious members of the public because it can result in the death of young."

MPR photo Dan Gunderson

Researcher Jeff DiMatteo says that's exactly what happened last year at the Marsh Lake Colony. An unidentified photographer paddled out to one of the islands and set up a blind. The parents left their nests and refused to return until the photographer left. Several hundred chicks died as a result. Dimatteo worries growing interest in pelicans will lead people to "love em to death."

To minimize the impact of his research trips to the colony, Dimatteo doesn't spend much time in any one area. He moves slowly to avoid alarming the pelicans.

I also worried about how to record the birds without unnecessary disturbance. Pelicans don't make a lot of noise. To obtain the sound of adults on the nest, I stashed a small recorder among the nests, collecting it when researchers returned to the area an hour later.

There have been cases of pelican colonies abandoned after too much disturbance. A few years ago thousands of pelicans abandoned chicks and eggs at the Chase Lake Refuge in North Dakota. The reason remains unclear. No one knows the limits of the pelicans tolerance for disturbance.

The DNR's Carrol Henderson says people who want to see pelicans should check out a colony on Pigeon Lake near Hutchinson. There is a Highway Scenic Overlook that was provided specifically for birdwatchers to view the colony from a safe distance.