It was a warm, sunny autumn afternoon and I was out for a stroll at my favorite spot on this Earth. October is prime fishing season on the Carolina coast and I wanted to see how much luck folks were having on the Kure Beach pier. As I approached the end of the pier, I spotted three burly fishermen with two day beards, grumbling and grunting in frustration while hanging over the railing. As I got closer, I was able to discern the words, more than a few of which were colorful. The grumbling continued as one of the fishermen hoisted up and over the railing the cause of discontent. A juvenile Brown Pelican was tangled in fishing line. I watched in disbelief as these tough guys took turns trying to loosen the fishing line with a guarded and tentative approach as if taming a lion. I stepped in, secured the bird’s bill with one hand and pulled its body against mine with the other and directed, “Now cut. He’s just a youngster and quite harmless.” When the fishermen were done cutting the line away, I let go. Like any smart bird, the pelican hopped a few steps, took flight and wasted no time getting away from us.
Though I felt sorry for the frightened pelican and annoyed by wimpy grown men, I enjoyed having the brief opportunity to hold such a magnificent avian. The bird’s feathers were well oiled (from natural oils from the preen gland) but not greasy…feeling more rubbery, like an old-fashioned hot water bottle. The bird was strong but surprisingly did not resist much. Even for a juvenile, its bill was nearly as long as my elbow to wrist and its wingspan easily three feet. But the pelican was light, no more than five pounds even though its body mass appeared to be comparable to a twelve to fifteen pound frozen turkey.
Brown pelicans live year-round in estuaries and coastal marine habitats along both the east and west coasts. They breed between Maryland and Venezuela, and between southern California and southern Ecuador—often wandering farther north after breeding as far as British Columbia or New York. On the Atlantic and Gulf coasts they breed mostly on barrier islands, natural islands in estuaries, and islands made of refuse from dredging, but in Florida and southern Louisiana they primarily use mangrove islets. On the West Coast they breed on dry, rocky offshore islands. When not feeding or nesting, they rest on sandbars, pilings, jetties, breakwaters, mangrove islets, and offshore rocks. There is one such island between Fort Fisher and Southport, along the mouth of the Cape Fear River, known by the locals as Pelican Island. It is easily seen by passengers taking the Fort Fisher Ferry.
Pelicans are chief among the wildlife I adore in estuarine and marine ecosystems. A foraging pelican spots a fish from the air and dives head-first from as high as 65 feet over the ocean, tucking and twisting to the left to protect its trachea and esophagus from the impact. As it plunges into the water, its throat pouch expands to trap the fish, filling with up to 2.6 gallons of water. Observing their physical agility, acrobatics and death-defying diving skills along the surf, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the previous generations of wildlife champions that saved them from extinction.
Brown pelicans nearly disappeared between the late 1950s and early 1970s because of pesticides, including endrin and DDT. In 1970, brown pelicans were federally listed as endangered. In 1972 DDT was banned because of its effects in causing thin eggshells in multiple bird species. We can particularly thank Rachel Carson who, in her book Silent Spring, challenged conventional wisdom about pesticides in a way rarely done by females of her generation, let alone female scientists.
By 1985, brown pelican populations along the Atlantic and eastern Gulf coasts had recovered enough to be delisted. Though the Brown Pelican is Louisiana’s state bird, they had to be reintroduced to that state in a program that lasted from 1968 to 1980. The species reached pre-pesticide numbers by the late 1990s and was fully delisted in 2009, less than a year before the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, creating an entirely new and substantial threat.
For now, it is reasonable to remain optimistic about the brown pelican’s future. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, brown pelicans have an extremely large range and their numbers appear to be increasing. For these reasons, the brown pelican is evaluated as Least Concern by the IUCN, in spite of the effects of pesticides and burly fishermen.