The Return of the Pelicans

By Michael Mentzer

PelicansAnyone who has been on Lake Winnebago, Beaver Dam Lake, the Bay of Green Bay or Horicon Marsh with any regularity in the past few years has, no doubt, enjoyed sightings of white pelicans.

Usually, views of the huge majestic birds occur at a distance, though there have been times they have floated so closely to me when I’m fishing on Winnebago that I can see their eyes, and during breeding season the large orange horn on the top beaks of the males.

I’ve watched them scoop nearly foot-long sheephead into their throat pouches and gulp the fish down whole. It’s part of the pelican’s dietary regimen of three to four pounds of fish daily.

Until recently, I hadn’t heard of anyone actually handling one of the big birds.

Pelicans weigh up to 30 pounds and have wingspans of eight to nine feet. They tend not to have much contact with humans, except from a distance they deem safe.

Retired Agnesian surgeon Dr. Tom Carlson is the only person I know of who has had a white pelican encounter that involved actual rescue and human contact with the wary creature.

It occurred in mid-September just prior to the exodus of pelicans on their southward migration. By late September or early October the big birds are well on their way to their wintering waters and estuaries of the southern Mississippi River range and the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida.

Dr. Carlson, who resides on Sandy Beach Road on Winnebago’s East Shore, first saw the pelican in the yard of a neighbor along the shoreline.

Actually, he didn’t know exactly what it was lying on the grass that morning.

“When I first looked out and saw this white thing…like a big white plastic garbage bag…I thought to myself, I’ll just walk over and pick it up before our neighbor gets home,” Dr. Carlson recalled.

After looking a bit closer, he realized it was a big bird with its wings spread and struggling for some reason on the ground.

He called the Department of Natural Resources office in Oshkosh and was referred to a waterfowl rehabilitation specialist in the Oshkosh area. She said the bird was likely an injured, disabled or dying pelican.

She said she would gladly take a look at the bird and care for it if he could deliver it to her. Judging by the size of the bird and the likelihood for mayhem in transit, he decided to do what he could on his own.

Up close and personal
He walked cautiously toward the bird and could tell that it definitely was a pelican. He surveyed the situation and saw that it had hooks in its beak, and was entangled in a swirl of monofilament fishing line.

As any surgeon worth his salt would do, he went back home to get the tools he would need. In addition to a pliers and cutting tools, he returned with a blanket to wrap around the pelican to calm it.

“I put the blanket around her and kept her head free so I could see the hooks in her beak and try and get them out,” he said.

He laughed and added, “I keep saying ‘her’ but I really didn’t know if it was a he or a she.”

It didn’t matter. He was simply trying to rescue a wild creature from a dismal demise.

Carlson was able to remove the treble hooks from the soft tissue of the upper part of the throat pouch “fairly easily.”

Then he turned his attention to the more difficult aspect of the surgical procedure. Treble hooks were embedded in the pelican’s foot, which is about the size of a human hand.

The treble hooks in the beak and foot were part of a four-inch Flicker Shad trolling bait with a big bill of its own. The bait is one of an arsenal of artificial baits used by walleye anglers.

Hooks and line
Compounding the pelican’s plight were several feet of monofilament fishing line wrapped in swirls around the bait and its foot.

Before the hooks were removed from the beak, the line and hooks held the foot to the beak making it impossible for the pelican to fly and almost impossible to even swim or move.

“I don’t know how it could have even gotten out of the water onto the shore,” Carlson said. “It must have been exhausted.”

He kept the blanket securely around the pelican with one hand while he used the other to remove the hooks from its foot and cut away the fishing line.

“It took a while — five to 10 minutes — but I got it,” he said. “The bird didn’t move at all. It just let me do what I had to do.”

Chuckie DeWitt, the niece of Frances Templin, another of Carlson’s neighbors, added a human characteristic to the pelican’s reaction.

“It was almost as though that pelican knew Doc Carlson was trying to help it,” DeWitt said. “It didn’t make a sound. It just let Doc work.”

Carlson noted, “When I got the line cut away, I got the blanket off her and she stood right up next to me.”

It was the first time the pelican made a sound, he said. It snapped its beak toward him — perhaps a “thank you” in pelicanese.

In a moment it walked about 10 yards to the water with no apparent ill effects and floated out from shore.

“I watched her floating out there for quite a while,” he said. “She seemed OK. Her wings looked fine.”

“I feel good that I was able to rescue the bird,” he said. “I’m hopeful she makes it.”

Southward bound, hopefully
Two weeks after the rescue, there was still no sighting of the pelican along Sandy Beach, and that’s probably a good sign. The big white bird with the massive wingspan and distinctive black wing tips is probably on a southward flight with its brethren.

The big birds will be back in spring. They apparently like Wisconsin and the habitat it offers.

According to newspaper reports, pelicans were in Wisconsin, Door County and the Great Lakes when the first settlers arrived in this part of the country. Over time they disappeared from this area, but became common in Western states and the interior of Canada.

Today, they’re back again and apparently here to stay.

I remember when they first showed up at Horicon Marsh in the mid-1990s. Ornithologists and regular down-to-earth birdwatchers flocked to see them.

In spring this year, according to Sadie O’Dell, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Horicon National Wildlife Refuge, there were about 400 nesting pairs on the marsh.

4,000 nesting sites
According to an article in the Passenger Pigeon, a quarterly publication of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology, there are more than 4,000 pelican nests in eight nesting colonies in the Badger State.

According to state experts, white pelicans are gravitating eastward from their established range in Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and Minnesota.

I remember fishing along the West Shore near Supple’s Marsh in spring this year and seeing blankets of white at open spots extending to the wayside along Highway 45. The blankets were in fact hundreds of pelicans massed in family groups along the shore.

It’s a sight to behold when a family of 10 to 12 pelicans glides in unison past you like cargo planes an inch or less above the water.

The first time I saw a pelican up close was three years ago shortly after a huge shadow flashed over me while I was fishing alone a mile or so northeast of the Lighthouse.

I looked up and didn’t see anything. A moment later, a pelican landed nearby and floated closer and closer until I realized just how big a white pelican is.

I didn’t have a camera or a cell phone with me.

I don’t need a digital image to help me remember.

It was simply unforgettable.

Michael Mentzer, now retired after a 40-year newspaper career, writes a monthly column for Scene.

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