Despite a slight drop in their numbers this year, Green Bay’s resurgent pelican population is expected to remain a summertime fixture here for years to come.
“It’s a bird that was here, it’s returned, and it’s doing well,” said Tom Erdman, natural history museum curator at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
The white pelicans are believed to have been part of the Green Bay landscape in the 1700s and 1800s. Evidence is inconclusive about precisely when they disappeared, or why.
But they returned in the mid-1990s and have been growing in numbers ever since.
Initially numbering just a half-dozen pairs, they have increased steadily to nearly 800 pairs last year. Erdman said the population dipped to 650 or 700 pairs this year, although he said the colony probably is just spreading out geographically.
“We certainly have enough room,” he said.
The pelicans, which are different from brown pelicans known to inhabit oceanfront sites on the U.S. coasts, migrate north into Wisconsin every spring.
They prefer Cat Island, situated about a mile out into the bay, primarily because the island makes them feel safe. Unlike many other birds, the pelicans build their nests on the ground, making their young vulnerable to coyotes and other predators.
The colony also frequents the De Pere dam on the Fox River because of the abundant fish available there for feeding.
Joel Trick, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said the pelicans are drawn to Green Bay by the secure nesting site and generous food supply.
The fact that they keep returning every year, Trick said, is an encouraging indication that the ecology in Northeastern Wisconsin remains vibrant and healthy.
“It’s indicative of the productivity of our ecosystem,” he said. “They wouldn’t be here if there weren’t a lot of fish.”
The pelicans leave Wisconsin and fly south during September and October each year.
Ty Baumann, director of the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary in Green Bay, said some people still are surprised to learn that pelicans can be found in Green Bay several months out of the year.
Public awareness of the species, Baumann said, is the first step toward conservation, especially with an animal as endearing to most people as a pelican.
“More people are seeing them than ever before,” he added. “They’re big, they’re impressive. People are really enamored with them.”
Their wingspan sometimes reaches 8 or 9 feet.
The same colony previously spent summers in North Dakota and other areas of the Great Plains. Erdman said he suspects that drought conditions and other natural changes in that part of the country prompted the flock to relocate to Wisconsin.
Industrial pollution in the Green Bay area was blamed for the 2005 discovery of a deformed white pelican here, Erdman said. He also voiced concern about the possible disruptive effects of ongoing pollution dredging in the Fox River.
But he said the pelicans probably will continue returning to Green Bay for the foreseeable future.
“The bay is very dynamic,” he said. “I suspect they’ll stay where they are.”