American white pelicans breeding in the northern plains: productivity, behavior, movements, and migration

Scientific Investigations Report 2013-5105

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks; and the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish
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Nearly half of American white pelicans (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos; hereafter pelicans) are believed to nest in several large colonies in the northern plains, yet few studies had been conducted on pelicans in this region until research began in 2004 to investigate the impact of West Nile virus (WNV) on their chicks. The work reported here focused on two of the largest colonies in the region, at Bitter Lake, South Dakota, and Chase Lake, North Dakota, during 2005–10. Pelicans usually began arriving at these two breeding colonies in early April. Egg-laying began during mid-April and nest initiations continued through May. The number of nests documented at these colonies reached a high of about 15,400 at Bitter Lake and 17,300 at Chase Lake, both in 2006. During 2006–8, annual variation in hatching success was high (40 to 100 percent) at video-monitored nests, averaging 61 percent for 82 nests at Bitter Lake and 57 percent for 88 nests at Chase Lake. Although most nests contained two eggs, of those where two chicks hatched, both chicks survived to the crèche stage (about 15 days old) at only two nests. Severe weather events, disturbance, and siblicide were documented causes of early season (before mid-July) mortalities. In the late season (mid-July to fledging), WNV was the most important factor contributing to chick mortality. Nests were nearly always attended by one adult during incubation and brooding. Adults typically exchanged places at the nest around mid-day in all 3 years, apparently taking advantage of thermals to gain altitude for travel to and from foraging areas. The mean time of exchange differed by about an hour between Bitter Lake (1328 central standard time, CST) and Chase Lake (1434 CST) colonies. During incubation, nearly 3 days often passed between adult nest exchanges; after chicks hatched, exchanges usually occurred daily. Exchanges were more frequent and chicks were fed more often at successful nests than at failed nests. Adult pelicans with satellite transmitters that incorporated a Global Positioning System (GPS) foraged primarily in shallow areas of lakes and semipermanent wetlands. These areas coincide with typical habitats of crayfish, salamanders, and rough fish, which were also the foods most commonly seen in pelican regurgitates at the colonies. Several satellite-tracked pelicans made frequent round trips between their breeding colony and foraging areas, most likely to provision their chicks. Typical distances travelled to foraging sites ranged from 30 kilometers to over 90 kilometers. Return times to the colonies (about 1300 and 1500 CST at Bitter Lake and Chase Lake, respectively) supported the colony difference documented at video-monitored nests. Of 28 pelicans tagged with GPS satellite transmitters in 2005–6, 26 survived the first summer and migrated south during fall. Nineteen of these returned to the breeding region (defined as north of the latitude of South Dakota’s southern border) in at least 1 year during 2006–9; collectively, they returned to the breeding region 33 times. Very few pelicans returned to the colony where they had been tagged; many did not breed and concentrated their activities at wetland complexes in South Dakota and North Dakota, but few tagged pelicans temporally overlapped at specific sites. During 2005–9, tagged pelicans collectively made 56 migratory trips south in the fall. Most wintered in Mexico, near the gulf coast and elsewhere; others wintered in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida. Individuals typically returned to the same general areas each winter. Individuals rarely followed the same migratory path on their way south and north, but they often roughly repeated southerly or northerly routes among years. Ensuring a sustainable population of American white pelicans requires identification and mitigation of known threats. The work described herein has identified WNV and severe weather as important factors that potentially limit reproductive success and recruitment in the northern plains. Managers in this region could assess the influence of such factors on productivity at key colonies by annually obtaining aerial photographs during peak nesting, and estimating numbers of chicks fledged from aerial photographs or ground counts. Banding a subsample of chicks in late June or early July, followed by a sweep for bands at the end of the season, would allow estimation of mortality rates of older chicks (that normally would fledge) and help track the influence of WNV or other mortality factors over time and varying environmental conditions.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
American white pelicans breeding in the northern plains: productivity, behavior, movements, and migration
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center
viii, 117 p.
United States
North Dakota;South Dakota
Other Geospatial:
Bitter Lake;Chase Lake
Online Only (Y/N):