Pelicans in Wisconsin (With Pictures)

Pelicans in Wisconsin (With Pictures)

In the heartland of America, where picturesque landscapes unfold around serene lakes and winding rivers, a magnificent avian visitor graces the skies and waters – the pelican. Wisconsin, often celebrated for its natural beauty and diverse wildlife, becomes a temporary haven for these graceful giants during their migration periods.

In this article, we embark on a captivating journey into the world of pelicans in Wisconsin, exploring their remarkable presence, behaviours, and the enchanting locations where they can be observed.

These pelicans, with their distinctive features and captivating behaviours, offer a unique opportunity for bird enthusiasts and nature lovers alike to connect with the wonders of the avian world. From the shores of Lake Michigan to the expansive wetlands of Horicon Marsh, Wisconsin provides a splendid backdrop for encountering these majestic birds.

Join us as we delve into the fascinating world of pelicans, uncovering their seasonal sojourns and the vital role they play in the state’s rich tapestry of wildlife.

1. American White Pelican

  • Scientific name: Pelecanus erythrorhynchos
  • Life span: 10-15 years
  • Size: 50-70 inches
  • Weight: 11-20 pounds (5-9 kg)
  • Wingspan: 9.0-9.8 feet (2.7-3.0 m)
  • Status: Least Concern           
  • State status: Breeding and migratory and rare

The majestic American White Pelican, an inhabitant of North America, graces the continent with its impressive presence. With a wingspan that can span up to nine feet, these pelicans exemplify elegance in flight. Their predominantly white plumage is accentuated by striking black flight feathers, which become more pronounced during their graceful soaring manoeuvres.

Primarily residing in the western and central regions of North America, these pelicans thrive in various aquatic environments, including vast lakes, reservoirs, and coastal areas. During the breeding season, a unique feature emerges as their bills undergo a transformation, developing vibrant knob-like structures.

These iconic bills, coupled with their pristine white plumage, render American White Pelicans a captivating spectacle for both birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts alike.

A close-up of an American White Pelican

In the mid-1990s, American White Pelicans in Wisconsin resumed their breeding activities, preferring serene environments for their nesting colonies. They often select secluded islands nestled within freshwater lakes and marshes.

These pelicans construct relatively uncomplicated nests using sticks, reeds, and local vegetation. While these nests are shallow and provide limited privacy, they effectively serve their purpose. During the breeding season, these colonies provide a peaceful contrast to the coastal commotion, offering a tranquil glimpse into their family life.

On Wisconsin’s tranquil lakes and lagoons, these American White Pelicans exhibit their cooperative fishing skills, showcasing their teamwork and dining habits. They gather in groups, forming a semi-circle to corral fish into shallower waters.

Their diet includes a variety of aquatic creatures, such as fish, amphibians, and crustaceans. Observing their synchronized fishing expeditions on Wisconsin’s placid waters provides a valuable lesson in nature’s ingenuity.

American White Pelican

Although not as critically threatened as some other species, American White Pelicans in Wisconsin still confront challenges, particularly concerning habitat loss and disturbances at their nesting sites.

Conservationists are actively engaged in safeguarding these vital habitats and raising awareness about the significance of these majestic birds within Wisconsin’s ecosystems. The American White Pelican stands as a symbol of Wisconsin’s dedication to preserving its unique wildlife and natural treasures.

2. Brown Pelican

  • Scientific name: Pelecanus occidentalis
  • Life span: Up to 25 years
  • Size: 40-53 inches
  • Weight: 4-8 pounds (1.8-3.6 kg)
  • Wingspan: 6.0-7.4 feet (1.8-2.3 m)
  • Status: Least Concern
  • State status: Migratory and rare

The Brown Pelican, renowned for its unique appearance and coastal lifestyle, is a common sight along the shores of the Americas. Characterized by its sturdy build, dark brown plumage, and long, robust bill, this species is easily recognizable. During flight, their wings present a striking contrast, featuring pale undersides and darker topsides, creating a captivating visual effect against the backdrop of ocean waves.

These pelicans primarily inhabit the coastlines of North and South America, with their range extending from the southern United States to the northern regions of South America. They are famous for their remarkable plunge-diving behaviour, a testament to nature’s precision. As they hover above the water, they keenly spot their prey, fold their wings, and dive headfirst into the sea to capture fish in their flexible throat pouches.

Intriguing and adaptable, Brown Pelicans symbolize the beauty and resilience of coastal environments, continuously captivating the imagination of those fortunate enough to witness their extraordinary feats along the ocean’s edge.

A Brown Pelican spreading in flight

These remarkable avian creatures do not engage in breeding activities within Wisconsin but instead prefer to establish their nests in colonies in other places, often occupying offshore islands and secluded coastal regions. In contrast to certain other bird species, Brown Pelicans do not fashion intricate nests; rather, they typically create shallow depressions in the sand or gravel.

They rely on the seclusion of these nesting sites to shield their eggs and chicks from harm. During the breeding season, these colonies buzz with activity as adult pelicans share the responsibilities of incubation and caring for their young.

The feeding habits of the Brown Pelican are a sight to behold along Wisconsin’s shores. They are skilled plunge divers, soaring gracefully above the waves before executing dramatic headfirst dives into the water to capture their prey. Their diet predominantly comprises small, schooling fish such as anchovies and sardines.

Brown Pelican

This hunting technique, often witnessed in groups, presents a captivating spectacle for bird enthusiasts along the coast.

The conservation history of Brown Pelicans in Wisconsin is a tale of resilience. These birds faced a significant threat from the pesticide DDT, which led to reproductive failures and population declines.

However, following the ban of DDT in the 1970s and extensive conservation efforts, the Brown Pelican staged a remarkable comeback. Conservationists have tirelessly worked to safeguard their nesting habitats and ensure the ongoing survival of this species.

Where to look for them

Finding pelicans in Wisconsin can be an exciting adventure for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts. While pelicans are not year-round residents, they can be spotted during their migration periods. Here’s how to discover these magnificent birds and four excellent areas to do so:

  • Lake Michigan Shoreline: Head to the eastern part of the state along Lake Michigan’s shoreline during the spring and fall migrations. Pelicans often stop here to rest and feed along their journey. Visiting places like Harrington Beach State Park or Point Beach State Forest can offer great opportunities to spot them.
  • Mississippi River: The Mississippi River, along Wisconsin’s western border, is another prime location for pelican sightings. Look for them during their migration periods, especially in the vicinity of wildlife refuges like the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge.
  • Horicon Marsh: Horicon Marsh, one of the largest freshwater marshes in the United States, is an excellent spot to observe pelicans and a known breeding spot for the American White Pelican. They can be seen here during their migration, and the marsh’s diverse habitat attracts a variety of bird species.
  • Green Bay: The Green Bay area, including places like Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary and the Green Bay Metro Boat Launch, provides opportunities to see pelicans as they gather near the bay’s estuaries and shoreline.

To spot pelicans, bring a good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope, and be patient. Watch for their distinctive long bills and large size as they glide gracefully over the water or rest on the shores. Timing your visit during their migration seasons, typically in spring and fall, increases your chances of witnessing these majestic birds in Wisconsin’s scenic landscapes.


These migratory wonders remind us of the interconnectedness of ecosystems and the importance of preserving their habitats. Whether witnessed along the shores of Lake Michigan or in the tranquil wetlands of Horicon Marsh, these majestic birds continue to captivate hearts and inspire conservation efforts.

As stewards of our environment, let us celebrate and protect these remarkable pelican visitors, ensuring that their annual journey through Wisconsin remains a symbol of nature’s enduring beauty.

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