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Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge - Woodworth, North Dakota

American White Pelicans

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

"When I came 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 8 to 9 and a half feet long.

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

View 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 one of the largest breeding colonies of American white pelicans in North America.

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

  • Since 1955, the USFWS has banded more than 36,000 pelican chicks at Chase Lake.

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

  • In 2000 a record 35,466 breeding pelicans were tallied at Chase Lake NWR and 34,604 in 2006.

  • Historically pelicans have nested on two islands located within Chase Lake, but high water levels in recent years have inundated some islands and created others.

  • Chase Lake is highly alkaline and does not support fish or other food sources for the pelicans. The tiger salamander and crayfish have been the main food base of the pelicans at Chase Lake. Some other food fish were infrequently observed. Pelicans make one way feeding trips up to 100 miles but feed primarily on local fresh water wetlands.

  • Wing span is 8 to 9.5 feet and the typical weight of a pelican ranges from 10-20 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 30 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.

  • Young pelicans 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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