Brown pelicans can inspire awe, laughs and concern for their environment

Ann Cameron Siegal

THE WASHINGTON POST – It’s hard not to giggle at the clumsy, clownish walk of a brown pelican. But their graceful flying in precise formations is awe-inspiring.

Bill Portlock, a retired educator with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, became interested in them years ago when he first saw them “plunge diving” – making a headfirst dive from as much as 65 feet up, zooming arrowlike with folded wings into water for food. Their expanding gular (throat) pouches can scoop up to three gallons of water while catching fish.

The quirky birds will soon return to the Chesapeake Bay after wintering on the Southern coast. They are fascinating to observe but even more interesting after learning about their survival story.

In 1970, brown pelicans were put on the United States (US) government’s endangered species list. The insect-killing chemical DDT, which had been used for several decades, contaminated fish, the pelicans’ main food source. The chemical harmed the pelicans’ abilities to breed.

“Their eggshells were too thin to allow successful incubation by their parents,” Portlock said. DDT was banned in 1972.

Not regularly seen around the Bay until 1987, there were 63 breeding pairs of brown pelicans in 1993 and more than 900 pairs by the late 1990s. They were taken off the endangered species list in 2009, and today there are more than 2,500 pairs.

Brown pelicans used to be an endangered species. Now there are more than 2,500 pairs in the Chesapeake Bay area. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

“Climate change creates an expanded breeding season,” said Dave Brinker, central region ecologist with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources. Warm weather lasts beyond summer. With islands free of raccoons and other pelican-chick predatorsand water full of fish called menhaden to eat, “pelicans found the Bay and liked it,” Brinker said.

Most brown pelicans migrate south for the winter. Even there, sudden cold snaps can happen as they did this year.

On Oak Island, North Carolina, in late February, Sea Biscuit Wildlife Shelter treated 16 juvenile brown pelicans having problems moving and eating because of frostbite on their feet and in their gular pouches.

“Some young pelicans make poor choices,” said Mary Ellen Rogers, the shelter’s founder. Adult pelicans typically know to head to warmer areas before getting frostbite.

Rogers’s patients are being released now that the temperatures are consistently above 40 degrees.

“Most of the frostbite issues are mild and healing. Only a couple might lose enough web tissue to (prevent) release,” she said.

Brown pelicans also face habitat loss as rising sea levels and more frequent storms flood their breeding sites.

“They are constantly searching for suitable nesting habitats,” said coastal biologist Ruth Boettcher of Virginia’s Department of Wildlife Resources.

Five years ago, a storm washed out their usual sandy ground-nesting site on Wreck Island (a barrier island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore). Pelicans moved into large shrubs and small trees typically occupied by herons and ibises.

“There is constant competition for higher ground,” Boettcher said.

That nesting adaptability helps. “Forty percent of all water birds in the Bay are declining in population because of habitat loss, but pelicans and cormorants are increasing,” Portlock said.

But scientists need to keep an eye on the birds, which Portlock called “early messengers” of how their environment is doing. A rise or decline in population can indicate environmental changes or the presence of toxins that could also affect humans.

“They’re not only fun to watch,” he said, “they can give us a window into their world and ours.”