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Species Spotlight: The Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

The Brown Pelican is an enormous, impressive, and unmistakable seabird. With its large bill pouch, low gliding flight and huge wingspan, the Brown Pelican is a common symbol of the beautiful and fascinating animals that make their living off of the rocky coastal waters of the Americas.

What you might not know is that the Brown Pelican was once almost completely lost to time. These birds were among the most dramatically impacted victims of the DDT crisis. DDT is a pesticide that was once widely used throughout the United States. Its chemical effects were devastating to the ecosystems exposed to it, and it had a particularly detrimental impact on birds. This is because one of the effects of DDT was the thinning of eggshells. Large birds were unable to reproduce successfully because their eggs did not have enough structural integrity to support the heavy bodies of incubating parent birds. For some birds, the babies themselves were too heavy for the eggs. The Peregrine Falcon nearly went completely extinct in the United States as a result of DDT, and many species, like the California Condor, are still struggling to recover their populations even decades after the use of DDT was banned. the Brown Pelican was hit heavily by the DDT crisis and its relatively stable population today is a triumph of conservation.

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Fun Facts About the Brown Pelican

The Brown Pelican was once an exceptionally rare bird in parts of its range. Now that conservation has allowed it to make a comeback, it is just exceptional! Let’s tale a look at some Brown Pelican fun facts to learn more about why these birds are so special!

Civic symbol: Perhaps because it such a large and iconic bird, the Brown Pelican is a popular symbol. It is the national bird of several island governments; namely Saint Martin, Turks and Caicos, Barbados, and Saint Kitts and Nevis. The Brown Pelican also appears on the Louisiana state flag. Louisiana’s nickname, the “Pelican State” refers to the Brown Pelican, so it should come as no surprise that it is also Louisiana’s state bird. The Brown Pelican makes many other appearances on Louisiana state symbols including the U.S. mint’s bicentennial quarter representing Louisiana.

Historical refuge: Theodore Roosevelt famously established the first national monument, Devil’s Tower National Monument, in Wyoming in 1906. This was an important phase in the early history of federal conservation. But did you know that the first national wildlife refuge was actually established three years earlier? Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida was established in 1903 by Theodore Roosevelt as a protected nesting site for Brown Pelicans. Even before the DDT crisis, Brown Pelicans have played an important role in the history of U.S. conservation!

Baby-sitting: One of the main reasons that DDT hit Brown Pelicans so hard is their size. Large chicks are heavy and require structurally sound eggs to support their weight as they grow. In the case of the Brown Pelican, those eggs needed to be extra strong. They weren’t just supporting the chicks’ weight, but the weight of the incubating parent. And not in the usual way. Brown Pelicans don’t just sit on their eggs, they actual incubate them using the skin on their feet. This means that they stand with all of their weight pressing down on their eggs. this is a normal behavior that works out fine with typical healthy eggs, but when eggshells were thinned from chemical interference, the results were catastrophic and ended up nearly wiping the out the entire Brown Pelican population.

No honor among thieves: If you’ve ever been fishing off of a coastal pier, you may already know that pelicans aren’t above lurking around and waiting for an opportunity to snatch an unguarded fish or take advantage of a friendly fisherman’s generosity. But what goes around comes around. When pelicans catch huge mouthfuls of fish in their bills, the prospect of an easy meal tends to attract seagulls. Gulls have been known to snatch fish directly from the mouths of Brown Pelicans, and will even stand on their heads to get a better angle accomplish their thievery.

Air bags: The Brown Pelican’s fishing strategy is death-defying. These enormous birds perform dramatic crash-dives into the water from heights as high as 65 feet. To avoid injury, they twist their neck and esophagus to the side while diving and inflate special air sacs under the skin that cushion their delicate organs from the impact.

The Future of the Brown Pelican:

The story of the Brown Pelican’s past conservation challenges is a perilous one that almost saw the complete extinction of this beautiful bird. Thankfully, when it comes to the present and future, things are looking up! The Brown Pelican was removed entirely from the Endangered Species List in 2009 due to the strength of its recovery.

But conservation is a process, not a destination. The Brown Pelican still faces threats that cannot be ignored if the species is to continue to thrive. The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was a major catastrophe for shorebirds of all kinds in the Gulf of Mexico. Current estimates suggest that as many as 800,000 birds died as a direct result of the spill, including an estimated 12% of the Gulf’s Brown Pelican population. Pollution and plastic waste continue to threaten the stability of Brown Pelican populations, however their numbers are holding stable and the species is still able to stand as a symbol of conservation success.

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1 thought on “Species Spotlight: The Brown Pelican”

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    Looking at beautiful flowers and birds has always been a favorite thing for me. I appreciate the work you put in on this website. It was informing and well put together. Years ago there was a weather event came across west Texas and the goat and sheep raisers came together and flew a golden pelican that road that weather event into west Texas from California. They successfully returned it home. I am a rancher and I appreciate it when people step forward to go the extra mile.

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