A few years ago we attended a wedding in the distant northwest corner of Minnesota. We made a weekend of it and took time to explore Rainy Lake, which is part of Voyageurs National Park. It has 929 miles of shoreline and somewhere around 1600 islands.
While we were there we rented a small fishing boat and took four birding friends with us to motor around a small portion of the lake and see what kind of wildlife we could find. One of Rainy Lake’s claims to fame are the White Pelicans that nest and breed there in the summer. is a favorite pastime for all of us, so we had our hopes up for some good sights.
An American White Pelican – note the black wingtips.
As we approached the end of Black Bay at the edge of the tall vegetation we could make out some masses of white. We’d hit the jackpot. White pelicans are one of the biggest of our North American birds, weighing close to 16 pounds. They compare in body size to Trumpeter Swans and they also have a long neck, but the white pelican has a wingspan of eight to nine and a half feet! Their black primary and outer secondary feathers can only be seen when the wings are outstretched in flight. This is a magnificent sight, especially when a flock of these great white birds is flying in formation and flashing in the sun as they bank in slow, synchronous turns.
And then, there is that beak – unlike any other in the bird world: a great orange dagger, preposterous in its size and shape. How in the world, one must ask, can a bird carrying such large baggage up front, ever get airborne? In flight, the birds bend their necks back so that the great beak rests on a fold of the neck. This is a demonstration of evolution at its best. Through eons of selection these birds managed to develop a beak that works perfectly as a fishing net and sieve.
Unlike their cousins the Brown Pelicans, Whites do not dive into the water after their prey. Instead they form fishing fleets, and slowly encircle the fish until they can reach down and scoop them up. Then they turn their heads up and let the water pour out the sides, while the flexible pouch gradually shrinks and they gulp down what remains. There is a wonderful rhyme, penned nearly 100 years ago by a man named Dixon Lanier Merritt which goes:
A wonderful bird is the pelican.
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak,
Enough food for a week,
But I fail to see how the helican.
There is truth in that rhyme too, because the pelican’s stomach can hold one gallon and the pouch can hold three gallons.
Looks impossible – but pelicans can swallow very large fish.
The cluster of four pelicans on Rainy Lake were sitting on rocks, preening themselves and just hanging out. A couple of double crested cormorants were nearby. Often these birds are found in the same vicinity, which makes sense since they are both fish eaters.
Although bird watching wasn’t a particular hobby for my mom, pelicans, both the White and Brown were her favorite birds. She died last week and forever more, whenever I see these magnificent birds, she will be there in my mind and heart. I will feel her spirit in their long, soaring flights and graceful movement across the water.
Brown Pelicans live near bodies of saltwater. Though not as striking as the White Pelicans, they are beautiful in their own right.
Soon the shortening daylight will spark an urgency for the White Pelicans to leave the northern lakes behind and begin their journey south. They will disappear from our state and it will be six or seven months until they return. Rainy Lake will be waiting for them and so will we.
By Kate Crowley