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Chase Lake Wetland Management District - Woodworth, North Dakota

American White Pelicans

Chase Lake has the largest white pelican nesting colony in North America. In 1908, only 50 white pelicans inhabited the area as written by local settler H. H. McCumber.

"When I can here in 1905 there were probably five hundred pelicans that nested on the island … after the number of pelicans had been reduced to about 50 birds, President Roosevelt set it aside as a bird refuge in August, 1908."

The American white pelican is one of those birds you just can't help but notice. It is one of the largest birds in North America, measuring 6 feet from bill to tail. White pelicans weigh up to 20 pounds and have a wingspan of nearly 10 feet!

Photo of a group of pelicans - Photo credit:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Although awkward and clumsy on land, the white pelican is somewhat of an "acrobat" in the sky. Flying high above the ground, pelicans slowly spiral down, gracefully gliding on the warm air currents of the atmosphere.

American White Pelican surveys have been conducted every year since 1972. These surveys estimated the number of breeding adults in the colony at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Between the end of May and first of June, aerial photographs are taken of each nesting area. Biologists then use the photos to count the number of nests in each photo to determine the total number of breeding pairs. In 2002, 16,883 nests were counted which is equivalent to 33,766 breeding pairsthe 2nd highest number of breeding pairs ever recorded!

Photo of a group of biologists banding pelicans - Photo credit:  U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Follow this link to see an aerial photograph marked with This link opens in a new windowpelican nesting locations (132 KB).

Pelican Facts of Chase Lake

  • Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge is home to the largest breeding colony of American white pelicans in North America.

  • In 1908, only 50 pelicans remained at the site as a result of uncontrolled shooting.

  • Banding of pelicans began in 1928 and has continued on and off through 2003 when approximately 2,500 young birds were banded.

  • Bands have been recovered from Florida, California, and many Gulf Coast States.

  • In 2000 a record 35,466 breeding pelicans were tallied at Chase Lake NWR and 33,766 in 2002.

  • Historically the pelicans have nested on two islands located within Chase Lake but with the high water levels in recent years they have been moving to different locations each year.

  • Chase Lake is highly alkaline and does not support fish or other food sources for the pelicans. The tiger salamander is the #1 food base of the pelicans at Chase Lake. Some other food samples collected contained rough fish and amphibians, game fish was infrequently observed. Pelicans make one way feeding trips up to 100 miles but feed primarily on local fresh water wetlands.

  • Wing span is 9.5 feet and the typical weight of a pelican is 20 lbs. at maturity.

  • Pelicans generally lay two eggs, up to 4, and sometimes only one. The eggs are 3.5" by 2.5" and chalky white in color.

  • Nests are built on the ground, unlined, and are 2-3 feet across and up to 1 foot high. Both parents incubate the eggs for approximately 29 days. Eggs in the same nest hatch at different times. Nest abandonment by the adults may reach up to 70%. Fledgling rate averages 0.60 young per nest.

  • Chicks are born naked and flesh colored. At 10 days old they are covered with thick white down. They remain in the nest 2-3 weeks and then gather in groups called creches or pods.

  • Begin to fly at 7-10 weeks.

  • Sibling rivalry accounts for the majority of young loss. The older, larger bird out competes the younger, smaller birds for food.

  • It is believed that the majority of the Chase Lake Pelicans migrate to the Gulf Coast, primarily in Louisiana and Mississippi for the winter.

  • Adult pelicans begin to arrive at Chase Lake NWR in early to mid-April and nesting starts at the beginning of May. The first chicks begin to hatch in early June.

  • Pelicans can be best viewed from mid-April until late August.

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