27 February 2010

Jeff and pelicans

I've taken the liberty to link a few things where applicable and removed a few snippets for privacy and length - it is otherwise an e-mail exchange regarding the banded pelican from Santa Ana NWR. Cliffs notes version pending! (see footnotes for updates)

I got a note from USGS in the mail the other day about a pelican that my husband and I saw at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge - in googling your name and hoping for a site about your project, I found a page by "birdchick" - if you'd like to see our post about the bird and tag, here's the link.
I did link to "bird chick's" site so readers could get an idea of things, but if you have another page with information I'd be happy to add it as well.
All the best with your work!


Hi Heidi,

First of all, thanks a lot for reporting this bird to the BBL. Many people don't, so I really appreciate it when someone does.

And thanks for sending the link to your web post, as well as encouraging others who view it to also report banded birds to the BBL. And no, I don't have a web site about my banding project, but have often thought that I probably should, but am a little too busy these days. I had to chuckle about your comment about the bird not crossing the border, because there's another reason why it was lucky it didn't--pelicans get shot for food south of Texas. A fair number of the reports I get from Mexico are of birds that were shot for food, and almost all of the reports south of Mexico are that type of recovery. I've had recoveries from as far south as Guatemala and Nicaragua (as well as ringing the Gulf coast from the Yucatan Peninsula, up through Texas, then east to Florida and down to Cuba).

A little history on the Marsh Lake pelican colony: pelicans first returned as a breeding species in Minnesota after an absence of 100 years when 10 pairs were found nesting on a small island in Marsh Lake in 1968. Four years later (1972) my master's adviser, Dr. Alfred H. Grewe, Jr. (St. Cloud State University) began a banding project in the Marsh Lake colony that has continued every year since. To date, over 54,000 pelicans and numerous other species of colonial waterbirds have been banded in the Marsh Lake colony. Following Al's death in 2001, the BBL transferred his banding permit to my name, and with the help of numerous volunteers (many are former students of Al's), we kept his banding program going without missing a year. Next summer will be our tenth year of banding without him. The colony grew steadily through the 1970s, 80s, and 1990s before leveling off between 15,000-20,000 breeding pairs in the 2000s.

Although I don't have a web site about the banding project, there are a few other web resources that reference it. The first year we banded after Al's death, the St. Paul Pioneer Press did a story that can still be found on several web sites (e.g.
More recently, we were joined by a 3M scientist with a personal interest in birds. He's originally from Japan, and is also involved with a web site dedicated to helping Japanese learn how to speak English "like Americans". He posted an article about pelican banding on their web site that can be found at [link] (there is also a Japanese version posted on their site).

When I took over the pelican banding project I worked as a waterfowl research biologist for the Minnesota DNR where I oversaw the state's bird banding program (primarily ducks and geese). From there, I went to the BBL where I served as their waterfowl biologist. Currently I'm pursuing a Ph.D. with a study in the Marsh Lake colony. The long term banding data will be part of that project, but I'm also looking at diet and other physiological factors related to chick growth and condition.

Thanks again for your report and additional information. I'll be sending more color-marked pelicans south next fall (as are researchers in Idaho), so keep your eyes open for additional birds with patagial tags.




Thanks so much for the additional history and insight! I'm so sorry to hear about hunting, it seems to be out of necessity in some regions and out of boredom in others (not too long ago there was a big stir on our state birding list about a hunter killing a pelican and a birder reported it - they'd tried to hide the body, but what a waste). Would you mind if I include some of your e-mail in a post? I'd at least like to add the two links for more background, and I finally dug up the old Abilene pelican link ...I guess some of the little fellows run out of steam sooner than others! The Abilene critter wintered in ponds adjacent to the zoo, also a pretty cushy spot (the pond has a resident pelican who can fly but never did take up migration after being released from rehab).

Happy trails,



Yes, the hunting is out of necessity in some regions. If you read "Birdchick's" descriptions of the pelican colony, you can imagine that most banders are disgusted at the thought of eating a pelican (the colony really is gross, and the smell sticks with you long after you leave and [try to] clean up). But I was sent photos of the living conditions and extreme poverty where one of my pelicans was shot in Nicaragua, and it became abundantly clear to me why they would eat pelicans. My master's research involved tracking radio-tagged sandhill cranes from northwest Minnesota to the Gulf Coast of Texas (they were thought to winter in Florida like cranes in east central Minnesota) and the first radio-tagged bird to get there was also shot. Although cranes are a legal game species in Texas (they're nongame in Minnesota), this happened prior to any hunting seasons. It was found in a ditch with a pile of dead ducks, and it was also before duck season opened. I have since had recoveries of other sandhill cranes from northwest Minnesota legally harvested in east Texas.

Thanks for sending the additional web link (and yes, you can include the information I sent in a post). I consulted with Idaho F&G officials when they started their marking program a few years ago. Among other things, we coordinated marking protocols so there would be no confusion between their birds and mine (different colors and mark on opposite sides). I found it a bit ironic that in the entire state of Idaho they don't have anywhere near as many pelicans as we have at Marsh Lake alone, but the incentive of their research is that they want to reduce pelican numbers. Which is a big reason why we're looking at diet in the Marsh Lake colony. We're already culling cormorants at a variety of locations in Minnesota based on a perceived threat to the state's walleye fishery. Diet studies were required to allow the culling operations, but even though those studies have shown that cormorants don't eat walleyes, the culling continues and gets expanded to new areas every year. Some would like to see pelicans added to the list, so we'd like to have some data to address those issues, although banders know from what they see in the colony that pelicans eat crayfish, salamanders, and rough fish, not game fish, but people can't see beyond the term "fish-eating birds".

...pelican banding [is] usually in mid-June, although late springs in recent years have resulted in July banding dates. Pretty much just have to play it by ear each year and see what the chronology of the hatch is like. I also band in other Minnesota (and North and South Dakota colonies), but those are even more variable... Marsh Lake is the big banding day each year. We do 2,000 pelicans, and then we try to band 3-500 cormorants, 500 ring-billed gulls, and as many as possible of great blue herons, great egrets, black-crowned night-herons, cattle egrets, and Forster's terns. We do that in a single morning and try to be off the lake by noon. Our best year we banded over 3,300 birds in one morning.

Migration seems to be a strong, instinctive behavior in most birds. But, I know there is a small colony of nonmigratory white pelicans in east Texas, and one (or two) in Mexico. Perhaps the rehabed bird came from that stock? Although, a lot of birds do become somewhat "domesticated" after going through rehab, and that may have caused that behavior.


So much great information about where "our" pelican was from - the history of its nesting colony and the sad reality facing other pelicans. Research indicates that pelicans are not eating game fish, but people don't feel better until pelicans are culled in the name of saving game fish. This is why science needs to be taken seriously; otherwise we're wasting our own time.

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