Minnesota’s largest bird


Here’s a trivia question for you: what is the largest bird that nests in Minnesota? Go ahead, take a guess…

Whenever I ask this question, I get many excellent answers: bald eagles, great blue herons, wild turkeys, sandhill cranes and swans are answers I get from those who are familiar with our native birds. To really answer this question, we must be more specific, because the heaviest bird in our state turns out to not to be the bird with the largest wingspan.

Have I piqued your curiosity yet? The largest bird that nests in Minnesota, based on its wingspan, is the American White Pelican. I know I tend to think of pelicans as ocean birds, and while white pelicans do migrate to the gulf coast for the winter, they spend the summer months in the middle of the continent, taking advantage of productive shallow lakes and marshes from Minnesota and the Dakotas northwest into the Canadian prairie. And just how big are they? An adult white pelican has a wingspan of 8 to 10 feet; for comparison, a large bald eagle or trumpeter swan could have a wingspan of 6 or 7 feet.

There are around 15,000 breeding pairs of white pelicans in Minnesota, most of which are along the western edge of the state. Pelicans nest in colonies on isolated islands, building their nests on the ground and laying their eggs (usually two) on bare soil, sand or gravel. The chicks hatch one at a time, and the older chick usually acts aggressively toward its sibling, taking the majority of the food their parents bring, and even kicking it out of the nest.

Pelicans eat fish and other aquatic animals, using their large bill and pouch to take large scoops from a lake and then letting the water drain out before swallowing the fish. Pelicans often work together to corral fish in shallow water, driving schools of minnows, carp and suckers to shallow edges where they can be easily scooped up. Pelicans will also hunt at night—while it may be harder to see, they are often able to catch larger fish that come close to the surface in the dark. An adult pelican has to eat about four pounds of fish every day; in addition, parents have to provide a chick with about 150 pounds of food from the time it hatches to the time it is ready to take care of itself.

There are no pelicans that nest near Minneapolis—according to the DNR’s 2004 survey, the closest nesting colony to the Twin Cities is on Minnesota Lake in Faribault County. Our largest colonies in the state are in the Marsh Lake complex in Big Stone and Lac qui Parle counties. We do, however, see pelicans every year at North Mississippi Park as they migrate to and from the southern U.S. Pelicans fly high in V-shaped formation, soaring when the can and flapping when they must. Looking like a squadron of fighter jets, they soar, flip, and turn, always staying together, their black and white wings catching the sunlight. We look forward every year to seeing flocks fly over, and now you, too, can keep your eyes open!

By the way, if you are wondering about the largest bird in Minnesota by weight, that honor does in fact go to the trumpeter swan, which can weigh up to 30 pounds.

Join us for the following nature program on Thursday, April 14, 9 a.m.-noon. Big River, Small Fry: Spring Babies. Get out of the house with your little one and enjoy a morning of nature activities. Drop in any time for games, stories, guided walks and more. For ages birth-6, $5 per person. Reservations required; call 763-559-6700.