Synchronized Fleet Fishing

Question: What do you call a group of pelicans?

Answer: A pod; pouch; scoop; squadron. And, if they are fishing as a group, the pelicans are called a “fleet.”

I recently witnessed a fleet of pelicans fishing while biking around Little Lake Butte des Morts. Similar to choreographed synchronized swimming, this fleet kept to a tight circle, alternatingly bobbing their heads down under water to catch fish (while their backsides mooned) and coming up to swallow their yummy and sustaining prize. Swimming in a circular dance with the beauty and grace of swans, it was mesmerizing and worthy of an attentive audience rather than a lone human figure.

White pelicans were once a rare site in Wisconsin. They did not spend summers in this part of the country until some time in the 1980’s and it wasn’t until 1999 that this breed of pelican began nesting in the Green Bay area and the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge near Mayville.

I had no idea that the American White Pelican existed in the state until I began noticing them on the Fox River and Little Lake Buttes des Morts within the last five or six years. On the Fox Trot trail, a brick wall was painted to include birds of the river, which includes ducks, eagles, geese and pelicans. And on the river that runs parallel, you can often see pelicans sitting on whatever protrudes from the water and will hold their two feet.


From Wisconsin Public Radio:

From 2005 to 2013, the state’s population continued to rise, reaching more than 4,100 nests. While researchers don’t know exactly where the massive influx of pelicans came from, Horicon biologist Sadie O’Dell speculates that the birds came from an abandoned colony in North Dakota.

“We found a banded bird here on the refuge and we know that that banded bird came from out West, likely in the Dakotas,” she said. “And there was a mysterious abandonment of a large nesting colony of over 30,000 nesting birds out and Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota.”


I took a few photos of the pelican fleet, but the video didn’t capture what I witnessed in person. The following YouTube video paints a better picture of their method and dance, although this fleet consists of hundreds of birds rather than the much smaller fleet of twelve that I watched.

American White Pelicans have no natural predators in Wisconsin, although the young may be vulnerable to eagles and foxes. With their nine foot wing span, they dine mostly on fish. Carp are invasive fish in some areas of the state, so the pelican may be helping with that population. They have a great habitat here, with plenty to eat, so it is expected their numbers will continue to grow.

I love to see these long-billed birds with a pouch, along with the ducks, geese and eagles that populate the area, but the dance of the pelican fleet is truly something special to watch. I hope that some of you will get to see it too, one day.

17 responses to Synchronized Fleet Fishing

  1. Dan Antion says:

    They are beautiful birds. I’ve only seen them a few times (not around here). I love how they move in the video. I like the guy that’s trying to land. I imagine him saying, “come on, shove over” to his pals, Your little group must have been fun to watch.

    • bikerchick57 says:

      This fleet was a joy to watch, Dan. It made the morning bike ride extra special and I hope I get a chance to see this up close again. I see them often during the summer, but it’s usually when they’re farther away and just hanging out. I’m glad those North Dakota birds decided to make Wisconsin and the nearby Great Lakes their new home.

  2. quiall says:

    I have never seen a pelican in the wild but they are fascinating birds. I loved the video! The phrase ‘birdbrain’ may have to be re-thought. These are not stupid animals.

    • bikerchick57 says:

      I greatly wonder, Pam, how the pelicans came to fish like this, in a group. How they keep in sync with one another. It’s so fascinating!

  3. lois says:

    Pelicans are so much fun to watch. We have brown pelicans here. I don’t think our fisherman care much what color they are–they just want them away from their fishing line!

    • bikerchick57 says:

      Ha! I can understand the issue with the local fishermen, but a bird’s gotta eat. I hope I get to see this again, which means I may have to take more bike rides on that trail. 😉

  4. murisopsis says:

    What a great experience you had! I had no idea that there were pelicans in any number in WI. The whole post was fascinating!

    • bikerchick57 says:

      I had no idea either, until I spotted my first. I grew up seeing herds of deer, and ducks and geese with their babies in the summer, so it was a pleasant surprise when I realized they were here.

  5. dweezer19 says:

    I love pelicans. The brown pelican is the state bird of my home state, Louisiana. I have photographed them on the LSU lakes during Autumn migration, along with the herons and egrets. They are so graceful except when landing. Lovely photos, Mary.

    • bikerchick57 says:

      From what I read, the white pelicans are spreading across the Great Lakes and that’s a good thing. There are plenty of fish in the lakes for them, along with the other water birds. Between the pelicans and the sandhill cranes here, I am a happy camper!

  6. Ally Bean says:

    Pelicans up north? That’s news to me, but if they’re happy and helpful, then I’m all for it. Huh.

    • bikerchick57 says:

      I know. I was shocked when I realized they were here. Pleasantly shocked, of course, and glad they migrate out of here before the snow flies.

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