The Chase Lake National Wildlife refuge in the southeastern corner of North Dakota has been a nesting haven for the American White Pelican since Teddy Roosevelt made the 4385 acres a refuge in 1908. When naturalists began documenting the white pelican pairs back in 1905, the numbers were severely diminished. Fifty pairs were counted. Fishermen and random hunters killed the large birds for sport and because they thought the birds were depleting game fish. When Roosevelt made it a refuge, the pelican numbers began to climb. In 2000 there were roughly 18,000 nesting pairs in the park.
The pelican is a large white bird that averages two meters from tail to bill, it weighs about nine kilos and has a wingspan of three meters. They live up to twenty five years. The range of the pelicans spans from the Pacific coast to the Gulf of Mexico and the migratory nesting sites are in the norther plains states. The Chase Lake pelicans winter on the gulf in Louisiana and Mississippi. The birds like marshes and bogs and are different than other species of pelicans because they do not dive for their meals, they use their bills to drag whilst they swim, scooping up fish, crustaceans, and amphibians. During the mating season , the male grows a fibrous plate on his bill the resembles a large scallop shell, the bill also turns a bright orange.
The birds arrive at the nesting sites in April. There are three main sites in Chase lake, two are small islands. The birds live in large nesting colonies and build their nests on the ground. The nests are a meter wide and a third of a meter tall, made of reeds, sticks and grasses. In early May, they lay 2-4 eggs, which they incubate for 29 days. Nest abandonment is a common occurrence. When the eggs do hatch, they are born bald and form a white down coat in the first ten days. Then they leave the nest after two to three weeks and form small juvenile social groups called pods or creches. They learn to fly in seven to ten weeks.
The water of Chase lake is highly alkaline and doesn’t supply a food source. The birds fly to nearby marsh potholes and streams to catch tiger salamander and carp. Some birds may fly up to 150 kilometers to find a food source.
In late May of 2004 a mysterious event happened. Over the course of a week, two of the three breeding colonies disappeared, just up and left. They left fledglings and eggs to starve and die. Researchers couldn’t explain what had happened. They tested air and water quality, tested dead birds for disease, looked for predators, but no variable could explain the mass exodus. Some cited weather or lack of food. Others simply pointed out that the population had stretched too far, or the water was too high or too cold, but still no definitive answer emerged. They just hoped the birds would return.
This year they did. In May of 2005, almost 18,000 birds have returned to the wildlife refuge. The population is considerably less than the birds that left a year ago, but people are happy to have the birds back even in a limited capacity. The birds have nested and are raising young, but the conservators of the refuge have limited public viewing and are earnestly hopeful that the birds stay through the end of summer.