Fishing is good in Port, if you’re a pelican

No strangers to Wisconsin or the Ozaukee County shoreline, migrating American white pelicans return with healthy appetites for the local seafood

WHILE ONE American White pelican that was enjoying breakfast in the Port Washington harbor Monday watched, perhaps in amazement, another caught and attempted to swallow a gizzard shad that looked way to large to be consumed by a bird, even one of the largest in North America. White pelicans winter in the gulf states, then migrate north in spring to breeding grounds, including sites in the waters of Green Bay and Horicon Marsh. They have become annual visitors to the Ozaukee County lakefront. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
Ozaukee Press staff

They look out of place fishing in the cold water of Lake Michigan, but scores of American white pelicans that have been seen along the Ozaukee County shoreline and particularly in the Port Washington harbor recently seem quite at home here.

That’s because these birds are no strangers to Wisconsin or Port Washington, where they’ve been seen in spring for years. 

White pelicans winter in the warm climate of the gulf states, then migrate north in spring. While they once only passed through Wisconsin en route to nesting sites elsewhere, the state is now a destination for these birds, with established breeding grounds in several areas, including the waters of Green Bay and in Horicon Marsh.

“Prior to establishing breeding colonies in Wisconsin in 1989 to 1990, they were only seen here during migration,” Bill Mueller, director of the Western Great Lakes Bird and Bat Observatory, which is headquartered at the Ozaukee Washington Land Trust’s Forest Beach Migratory Preserve in the Town of Belgium, said. 

But what to make of Port Washington’s itinerant white pelicans population is not exactly clear.

If these birds were going to mate, they would probably be at a breeding ground by now, Mueller said.

“If you arrive late to the party, you probably won’t get a nesting spot,” he said. 

Part of the issue is that white pelicans don’t breed just anywhere. A pair could find an idyllic island all to themselves, yet they wouldn’t breed. 

“American white pelicans are colonial nesters,” Mueller said. “They never nest all by themselves. There has to be a critical mass of birds that nest together in a colony.”

Some of the pelicans in Port may be juveniles who are too young to reproduce, although others are clearly adults as evidenced by the large ridge on top of their bills. Called nuptial tubercles, these ridges indicate the birds are of mating age and fall off adults after chicks have hatched.

Another explanation for the pelicans’ cameo appearance in Port is that they were simply off course and missed their breeding grounds, which happens in the bird kingdom, Mueller said. For instance, a group of migrating songbirds destined for breeding grounds in Illinois may suddenly appear in Wisconsin.

“Some of them overshoot their destination, then hang around for awhile and seem like they’re searching for a mate, kind of like a lonely bachelor who can’t find a girlfriend,” Mueller said. “That could have happened with these pelicans. Something just didn’t click for them and they couldn’t find the breeding ground.”

Whatever the reason white pelicans are in Port Washington, they have become quite a spectacle.

Among the largest birds in North America, the American white pelican is both an extraordinary flier and fisherman.

With a wingspan of 7 to 9 feet, the birds can soar to heights beyond human sight and fly hundreds of miles a day.

“White pelicans are the master soarers of the bird world,” Mueller said. “They use their large wingspans to ride thermals, never using more energy than they need to.”

Unlike their brown relatives, white pelicans do not dive from the air for fish. Instead, they hunt from the water in small groups, herding their prey into the shallows with each bird scooping up about three pounds of fish a day.

The good news for outmatched human fishermen is that white pelicans prefer rough fish like shiners and gizzard shad as opposed to sport fish like trout and salmon.

In the Port Washington harbor this week, the visiting pelicans put on a fishing clinic near the mouth of Sauk Creek and along Fisherman’s Park. Working in groups of two or three, they slowly patrolled the water until they spotted their prey, then struck with their long bills, scooping up mouthfuls of shiners and gizzard shad that were nearly as large as their bills. 

How long this show will go on is anybody’s guess. 

Noting that white pelicans appear to be spread along the Lake Michigan shore from Racine to Door County, Mueller said, “Some of these birds will probably just drift up and down the lakeshore all summer.”


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


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