Brown Pelicans: From Endangered to Endearing

NOTE: This article first appeared several years ago in Atlantic Coastal Kayaker.

Each morning, while I’m paddling my surf ski, I run through several images in my mind; most have to do with paddle position, the catch, body rotation-technical stuff. But often I find myself coming back to another less technical image, that of a pelican. It’s not that typical image of the pelican, the one my father so enjoys while sitting on the beach-a bird hovering over the water, clumsily collapsing its wings, crashing into the water, and coming up with a wriggling fish in its bloated pouch; what I like to call the “crumple, crash, gulp.” That’s not a performance I particularly want to repeat on my surf ski.What I do want to replicate is a less common, more ethereal image of this bird–gliding just inches from the surface, wings spread wide, the glassy water barely rippled by the downward air pressure or an occasional light touch of the wings. It is a picture of the pelican as the master of low-level flight. Ah, if I could get my surf ski to glide like that!

During a trip to the Pacific coast of Guatemala, I witnessed another remarkable demonstration of the pelican’s low-flying proficiency. The sea was churned by a dying tropical storm-six to eight foot waves built offshore and crashed into a steep black sand beach. I was sitting, lulled by the roar and a cold beer, when out of the corner of my left eye I saw them-single file lines of pelicans, moving in unison, adjusting to the contours of the waves, dipping then rising, rising then dipping, staying within a foot of the throbbing surface. Flowing. Oh, the flowing! I come back to that image repeatedly-trying to duplicate that seemingly effortless groove during my own rough water paddles. Each time I am grateful that nature has provided me with such a wonderful model.

I am also thankful that humanity has not succeeded in taking this image from me. A seemingly common species here in Florida, Atlantic Coast populations of the Brown Pelican were on the federal Endangered Species List until 1985. While they have few natural enemies, pelicans have faced numerous human-made threats. As with many of Florida’s birds, pelicans were hunted for the fashion-conscious-their feathers adorning ladies hats in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Following World War I, commercial fisherman slaughtered pelicans and raided nests for eggs-eliminating what they perceived as competition for a limited fishery and supplementing their diet during post-war food shortages. During the 50s, 60s, and early 70s, pelican breeding success was negatively affected by the widespread use of DDT. The pesticide, used widely for mosquito control, was ingested with contaminated fish, and caused pelicans to produce thin-shelled eggs-so thin the eggs were crushed during incubation. As if slaughter and contamination were not enough, the brown pelican was also the victim of an increasing human population. In Florida, the ensuing development, the filling of wetlands, and the destruction of coastal mangrove habitats destroyed essential nesting and feeding areas.

Following the protests of early Audubon Societies, and President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1903 designation of Florida’s Pelican Island as the nation’s first National Wildlife Refuge, plume hunting declined and the fickle fashion world soon lost its taste for feather-adorned hats and clothing. Studies showing that pelicans were not harming fisheries helped halt the killing of pelicans by commercial fishermen.

While these early efforts at preservation were helpful, it was not until the early 1970s that the Atlantic coast populations began to recover. In 1970, the brown pelican was listed as a federal endangered species. Two years later, the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT in the United States-initiating a continuing decline in the contamination of pelican eggs, and a subsequent increase in nesting success. In some areas pelicans began to make use of new nesting habitats-mangrove islands created as a by-product of the dredging of the Intracoastal Waterway. Though these factors led to the de-listing of Atlantic coast populations of the brown pelican, populations along the northern Gulf of Mexico are still considered endangered.

A seemingly large bird, 42 to 54 inches long with a wing-span of 6 ½ to 7 ½ feet, the brown pelican is actually the smallest member of the pelican family. Primarily fish eaters, pelicans eat up to four pounds daily. Sharp eyes allow brown pelicans to fly 60 to 70 feet above the water while looking for prey. Upon sighting a potential meal, they fold up their wings and go into a steep dive; smashing into the water, their pouch expanding as it fills with water and, hopefully, a fish. It is often this dangling, bloated pouch that people think of when they imagine a pelican. In addition to its essential role in fishing, the brown pelican’s pouch can also help keep them cool during hot weather and serve as a feeding trough for their young.

Brown pelicans breed and nest in March and April. During this time, I begin to make occasional pilgrimages to further my covenant with the pelican. Most times it’s just a detour during my normal workout, sometimes it’s a special trip. Either way, I paddle to one of the rookeries I know-mangrove islands where nesting pairs return each year. There, I pause and absorb-the downy white young in the nests, the smell of regurgitated mullet and fetid guano, the clapping bills of defensive parents. My senses are bombarded with stimuli both reassuring and comforting.

For me, these young pelicans are a sight to behold and revere-the continuation of a sacred cycle. With each passing week, my anticipation mounts. They grow so fast. Feathers change from downy white to mottled brown-from insulation to transportation. It’s about 75 days from fragile egg to juvenile teetering at the tip of a precarious branch. Then it happens. Frantically, the gangly wings beat, and beat, and beat. Suddenly, gravity is overcome, the bending branch straightens, the pelican takes flight. I smile and kayak home– knowing that for years to come those special images I have of the pelican will be there to refresh my spirit and my paddling.

Environmental Note: please do not approach rookeries (nesting islands) too closely. Young that cannot fly may be startled into falling out of their nest. If this happens they will die. I recommend 20 meters as a rule of thumb.  Do not approach any closer. Bring binoculars, a camera with a zoom lens and respect for their space.

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