By: Marlene Affeld
Montana is the summer home of thousands of fat, funny waterbirds - The American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos).
I have always associated pelicans with the ocean and never considered them an inland bird. I was amazed to discover that thousands of pelicans spend their breeding season in Montana. American White Pelicans in Montana are long-distance migratory birds that spend the winter in warmer weather, traveling as far south as Central America and faithfully returning to their natal habitat every spring.
White Pelicans sport an enormous bill with a flapping (disensible gular) pouch; they waddle on broad (totipalmate) webbed feet, yet fly with grace and precision. In flight, the pelicans fly, rather comically, with their heads withdrawn. White Pelicans are a social bird that normally travel in a flock and freely shares its feeding ground with cormorants and seagulls.
Often when foraging within a mixed-species flock, the pelicans are real rascals; stealing food from their neighbors (kleptoparasitism). White Pelicans have quite the appetite; breeding adults daily consume as much as 40% of their body mass in tasty prey. The pelicans mainly feed on non-game fish such as suckers, minnows and carp.
Early in the breeding season, the American White Pelican, is a spectacular sight; the legs and bill are a brilliant orange, their heads are wreathed in snow-white plumage and the upper portion of their bill (mandible) has a laterally flattened horn. Later in the season their bright color fades, the feathers darken and the horn and plumes are lost.
Feeding, nesting or just loafing, American White Pelicans can be found throughout many aquatic and wetland habitats in Montana. However, to view them in concentration, a visit to Medicine Lake is a delightful adventure.
Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Encompassing over 31,660 acres, Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge, located in the northeastern corner of Montana offers a diverse range of majestic scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities that delight over ten thousand visitors annually. Bird-watching, photography, hiking, hunting and fishing attracts adventerous travelers from around the world; young and old alike.
Established in 1935 under executive orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Medicine Lake National Wildlife Refuge eco-system sustains a wide range of prairie mammals, amphibians, reptiles and more than 225 species of beautiful birds. Remarkablly, its most spectacular attraction is the huge colony of American White Pelicans that call the refuge home.
Arriving in 1927, a substantial colony of pelicans have nested annually on the big island of Medicine Lake. Studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report that over a ten year period, over 4,000 breeding pairs each year fledge their young at Medicine Lake. Montana proudly boasts the 5th largest pelican colony in the United States.
Medicine Lake Refuge contains abundant wetlands divided into two sections. The North Unit contains numerous glacial carved potholes and crevices that retain water year long, eight small lakes and the majestic 8,700 acre Medicine Lake. Medicine Lake is the largest natural lake in eastern Montana. The Homestead Unit consists of the 1,280 Homestead Lake and adjoining grasslands sparkling with wildflowers.
The Medicine Lake Refuge is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System that honors the United States' proud history of environment conservation. The refuge was originally established by President Theodore Roosevelt in March 14, 1903. The National Wildlife Refuge System has matured to 540 refuges across the United States, encompassing more than 100 million acres. The National Wildlife Refuge System, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the largest network of land dedicated solely to wildlife conservation, preservation and protection. What a proud heritage for future generations.
In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt also signed an executive order that assigned the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) to supply the labor force required to create habitat restoration and improvements to the refuge’s complex infrastructure.
Growing environmental concerns regarding diminishing goose and duck populations motivated the work at the camp to be focused on quickly developing a migratory waterfowl refuge and to achieve over-all improvement of the breeding grounds to attract a variety of game birds. The workers at the CCC camp hauled soil and land fill to provide artificial nesting islands in the wetlands and to build overflow spillways to manage and control water levels. The CCC also planted trees, cover foliage and aquatic food plants to attract migratory fowl and wildlife.
Intense construction efforts by the CCC continued until 1941 when manpower was needed to be diverted to the war effort. The remainder of the construction and maintenance of the project continued under the capable direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The project was highly praised as an outstanding example of waterfowl management.
The aquatic refuge at Medicine Lake has successfully attracted Canadian Geese and currently over 1000 of these striking birds nest and breed in this eco-friendly habitat, producing nearly 1000 goslings annually. Medicine Lake Wildlife Refuge has become a verdant shelter and feed grounds for deer, elk, antelope, upland gamebirds and a variety of small animals.
The refuge also provides habitat for an abundance of prairie birds including burrowing and short-eared owls, sharp tailed grouse and the western meadowlark, the Montana state bird.
If you have an opportunity to visit this spectacular and eco-diverse refuge, you will feel a primal connection to nature and some of the magnificent creatures that grace our world.