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Getting to know the pelican

Clumsy on land but majestic in the air, pelicans are a fascinating bird that most Minnesotans are quite familiar with. In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, they are a common sight.

It’s no different in the Alexandria area. But how much do you really know about pelicans?


The pelicans we see in Minnesota during the summer are American white pelicans. These pelicans are some of the largest birds in North America. They weigh 11 to 20 pounds and are 50 to 65 inches long with a wingspan up to almost 10 feet.

Their feathers are all white with the exception of the black feathers on their wings that can only be seen when flying. Their orange bills have a large pouch that allows them to scoop up fish. The pouch can hold up to three gallons of water.


Pelicans typically live and forage on shallow inland freshwater lakes and wetlands in the northern parts of the U.S. and in Canada during the summer. They migrate south during the winter, where they are found on coastal bays, inlets and estuaries in the southern U.S. and in Mexico.


About 20 percent of the world’s breeding population of American white pelicans is found in Minnesota.

Pelicans live in colonies that contain hundreds of pairs. They nest on the ground, preferably on islands where they are more protected from predators.

Pelicans must provide about 150 pounds of fish to a chick from the time it hatches until 10 to 12 weeks later when it can catch food on its own.


Pelicans are carnivores, consuming about four pounds of fish per day. They mainly eat fish half the size of their bill that live in shallow wetlands, like minnows, carp and suckers.

They will also eat bottom feeders, salamanders, tadpoles and crayfish, depending on water levels and abundance.

Unlike other pelican species, which dive into the water to catch fish, American white pelicans simply dunk their heads underwater as they swim and use their pouches as fish nets.

They sometimes hunt in groups, driving fish toward the shore or toward each other to be more easily caught.


In the late 1800s, settlers raided pelican nesting colonies because they thought they were going to cause a fish shortage. After that, pelicans weren’t seen in Minnesota for about 90 years.

They are now back to a safe population, and some fishermen are becoming concerned that fish populations will decrease as a result.

Accordingto experts, pelicans are not significantly influencing fish populations, especially of larger game fish. White pelicans can’t catch the larger, faster and deeper fish.