Study: North Dakota pelican deaths result of earlier return migration

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A new study ties the deaths of thousands of pelican chicks at a North Dakota wildlife refuge to the birds' earlier return migration in the spring.

The Fargo Forum reports researchers found white pelicans are returning to the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge 16 days earlier than they did in the 1960's. Scientists believe warmer weather at their wintering grounds on the Gulf of Mexico is triggering the earlier migration, the Forum says.

In four of the five years studied by a United States Geological Survey research center near Jamestown, N.D., thousands of pelican chicks returning to the refuge perished in cold, wet weather. The lead researcher tells the Forum adult birds can manage the earlier migration but the chicks have not developed a layer of protective feathers.

The Chase Lake refuge, which is near Medina, is home to about 30,000 white pelicans, the Fish & Wildlife Service says. That's quite a turnaround from the 50 pelicans that lived there when President Theodore Roosevelt declared it a refuge in 1908.

The adult population remains strong and is occasionally the subject of media profiles. Last summer Fox News visited Chase Lake for a feature on the pelicans. At 6 feet long with a 10-foot wingspan, they are among the largest birds in North America.

The previous summer an Associated Press story reported the number of pelicans was near a record high.

But the loss of chicks has refuge manager Neil Shook concerned about the longer-term future of the colony – particularly since not much can be done about it in the near term. “We can’t do anything about the birds arriving 16 days earlier,” Shook tells the Forum. “And we can’t do anything about the weather.”

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