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Pelicans land on Portage Lake for the holiday

A White American pelican flaps its wings on Portage Lake earlier this week. Residents spotted a dozen of the large birds that arrived on Memorial Day weekend. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Over Memorial Day weekend, a flock of pelicans started gathering on Portage Lake.

"I counted a dozen this morning, said lake resident Marilyn Peterson on Wednesday. "My husband has counted as many as 18."

The Petersons said it's been a couple years since they've seen pelicans. The American White Pelicans are somewhat sporadic visitors, the couple maintains.

"Pelicans are becoming more common in the state. A major nesting location, one of the largest in the country, is located at Marsh Lake, part of the Minnesota River," said Katie Haws, DNR nongame wildlife specialist.

In the most recent state count of the pelicans, somewhere between 13,000 and 15,000 nesting pairs were counted between 2004 and 2005 at Marsh Lake.

Other nesting sites are at Lake of the Woods and Red Lake.

Not everyone is thrilled with the large birds, however. Haws and other wildlife specialists, in the study, noted that sport fishers and recreation enthusiasts have complained about the large number of fish the birds consume, usually in groups.

Donna Dustin, a DNR fisheries researcher, happened to be on the lake Wednesday conducting a plant survey. Although, by way of disclaimer, she said she's not a nongame specialist, she's seen studies of pelicans.

"I've read where they'll gather in groups, usually in a semi-circle and push smaller fish into a group where they scoop them up," she said.

Adult pelicans can consume up to 4 pounds of food daily; their pouches hold 3 gallons of water. Unlike brown pelicans, whites won't dive for food. They have a more dignified approach: Pot luck pelican-style, whatever the group collects.

White pelicans are groupies by nature. The squadron on Portage (also called a brief, a pod, a pouch or a scoop) tended to stick together or keep in close proximity to each other. Many sported what's called a fibrous keel, basically a bump on the upper bill they develop during mating season. The bump, referred to as a horn, is shed off after the birds have mated and hatched eggs.

They're on a lower priority run of the Endangered Species listing because they are maintaining a stable population nationally.

Marilyn Peterson isn't sure the Portage pod is nesting in the area, but would like to see a perennial population of the majestic birds, graceful in midair despite their bulky appearance.

She's not worried about the birds raiding the lake's fish population, but she said a healthy number of predators may force the group to more sheltered mounds.

"I say live and let live," she said.