The brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) has many claims to fame. It is the national bird of the Turks and Caicos Islands, the Louisiana state bird, an expert diver, and an ecological success story.
He fought near extinction in the United States. In the early 1900s, brown pelicans could be found along the coasts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf of Mexico, from California to Chile and from Maryland to Venezuela. However, by the 1960s, this bird had disappeared from Louisiana, the Pelican State, and from most coastal areas in the US The main cause of this decline was the pesticide DDT. DDT was transported to coastal waters from agricultural lands and later entered the food chain. As these pelicans ate contaminated fish, they laid eggs with thin shells. Since brown pelicans incubate their eggs by holding them under their webbed feet rather than against their chests, the eggs would be broken by the weight of the parents. After DDT and similar pesticides were banned in the 1970s, the brown pelican population began to rebound. From 1970 to 2009, the brown pelican was on the endangered species list.
Just a few months after being removed from the endangered species list, the brown pelican returns to fight for its existence in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. On April 20, 2010, the Horizon Deepwater drilling rig exploded, causing an oil leak that threatens much of the wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico, including the brown pelican. Because this bird relies on Gulf waters for food and barrier islands for nesting areas, this ecological disaster could reverse its wonderful recovery over the past 40 years.
The brown pelican is truly an amazing bird. It is the smallest of the pelicans, but it is definitely not a small bird. It is 4 to 5 feet tall and has a wingspan of 6 to 8 feet wide. The beak is about a foot long and has a very large bag of skin that is used to collect fish and water. The bag can also be pressed to allow it to cool down during the heat of the day. A pelican on the ground may appear very clumsy and clumsy, but they are magnificent in the air. They can fly and glide low over the water in search of fish.
The brown pelican is a great fisherman. The pelican flies through the water in search of menhaden, herring, mullet, sheep, silverside, and other fish. When fish are seen, they dive head first to catch their food and fish and fish in your bag. When they surface, they drain the water from their bag and swallow the fish. Seagulls sometimes try to steal fish from the pelican’s pouch; in fact, seagulls perch on the head of a pelican waiting for the right moment to attack. The brown pelican is the only pelican that is a dive angler.
Brown pelicans live only in marine waters. They are very rarely found inland. Most of the time, they are within 20 miles of the coast. They prefer bays and other shallow marine waters. These birds are very gregarious and nest in flocks of males and females throughout the year. They build nests on islands. They nest on the ground or in the lower branches of trees or shrubs if predators are nearby. They mate for life.
The brown pelicans had been suffering from the loss of nesting sites due to coastal erosion. Some efforts have been made to rehabilitate the main nesting areas. The elimination of DDT and the restoration of their nesting sites made the brown pelican a true ecological success story.
The brown pelican is now threatened again by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The brown pelicans’ way of life makes them very vulnerable to this oil spill. The oil spill can affect these birds in the following ways.
1. When they submerge themselves in the water to eat, they immerse themselves in the oil that coats their feathers and they go through it. Depending on the amount of oil in the feathers, they can become hypothermic or even drown.
2. Ingestion of oil or oil-contaminated fish can cause illness or death in these birds.
3. Even if the oil does not harm these pelicans, it could cause a reduction in the fish available for food. Since adult pelicans can eat up to 4 pounds of fish a day, any decrease in food supply could cause great damage to flocks.
4. Because it is spring, pelicans and many other birds and marine life are producing offspring. Some oil-stained pelican eggs have been found. Scientists do not know what the effect of the stains may be. Eggshells are porous to allow embryos to exchange carbon dioxide for oxygen. If there is enough oil in the shells, the embryos could suffocate or suffer major damage from the oil.
5. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the toxic components of oil, could pass through the eggshell and cause almost certain death of the embryo.
6. Once the embryos are born, they will face the same threats from oil and oil-contaminated fish that their parents face, only they will be much weaker and smaller.
For more information on efforts to rescue brown pelicans and other birds endangered by the oil spill, visit the International Bird Rescue Research Center (http://www.ibrrc.org).
It is not known how much damage the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will do to the brown pelican; only time will tell. Forty years of work can be undone, but this incredible bird has recovered before ecological disasters. He has proven to be a great fighter and can fight back if necessary. Not all brown pelicans live around the Gulf of Mexico, so they can be relocated back to the way they were after the ecological problems of DDT and the flocks can recover again.
The Gulf of Mexico won’t be the same until brown pelicans can safely build nests on barrier islands, dive into the water in search of fish, and perch around piers and marinas waiting for that unattended fish. Brown pelicans are an integral part of what makes the Gulf of Mexico special.