SALT LAKE CITY — If you see a pelican wearing what looks like a backpack of sorts, don’t be alarmed. That is just the way the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources keeps track of migrating American white pelicans.
In 2014, the Division of Wildlife Resources started marking pelicans on Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake in an effort to track their migration patterns, life span and population rates.
Most pelicans receive a leg band and a wing tag, which both help scientists to identify exactly which bird they’re studying, according to the DWR website. Some pelicans also receive GPS transmitter backpacks that can track the location and behaviors of their species. Their locations are shared on the DWR website on a page called PeliTrack.
“The data gathered from this study will help biologists conserve Utah’s pelican population and better understand their interactions with humans, fish and other wildlife,” according to the page description.
DWR avian conservation program coordinator Russ Norvell said the location of the birds updates on the website about every three days.
“We have them on that schedule because it takes a lot of battery power to send contact up to the satellite," he said.
The GPS locator backpacks are solar powered and are charged as the pelicans are out in the sun, according to Norvell. The DWR makes sure to size each transmitter specifically to each pelican. Norvell said this is the most difficult part of the process and that fitting the transmitters is “more an art than a science.”
Currently, the DWR tracks 11 pelicans around the country. Each pelican has a name and color that you can identify on the online map. Identifying just one pelican can also help identify the number of pelicans surrounding them.
A pelican named Nathan was in Georgia as of Nov. 1. Norvell said that this is the farthest east that any of the birds the DWR tracks have traveled.
Currently, you’ll find most of the pelicans on the western coast of Mexico, most likely retreating Utah as the temperatures drop.
Something beneficial to tracking the pelicans is that the DWR can notify airports where pelicans may be flying, according to Norvell. He said that this is crucial since pelicans heavily populate the flight paths around the Great Salt Lake.
In the past, American white pelicans have been considered a sensitive species in Utah because population levels have declined. But the PeliTrack project has shown promising results for the species.
“Their populations are still recovering from food deprivation impacts and pesticide,” Norvell said. “They’re in a long, slow recovery from that. So we are just starting to get to the point where populations are starting to recover.”