This bird is a jubilant success story in conservation. The species was nearly extinct in the 1970s due to pesticides, primarily DDT. Today the population is estimated at 650,000 individuals with a Conservation Status of “least concern.”
In the early 1970s a Tampa University research group in Florida discovered that DDT and other pesticides were responsible for thinning the brown pelican eggshell to the point that it could not support the embryo. The population dropped drastically. The bird was declared endangered, the research group was successful in banning the use of DDT in Florida, and other states followed. More info here.
This distinctive bird occupies the western, eastern, and Gulf coasts of North America. A large bird weighing 6-12 pounds (2-5kg) with an impressive wingspan of 6-8 feet (1-2m), it is still able to coolly cruise just inches above the water’s surface in spite of its large size. We often see them in single file over shallow water as they hunt. Their diet is almost entirely fish (menhaden, smelt, anchovies, etc.) but they will also eat crustaceans, mainly prawns.
Of the eight pelican species in the world, there are two types: those that fish from the air (Brown Pelican and Peruvian Pelican), and those that forage while swimming. The plunge diving of the brown pelican is especially entertaining to watch. They spot their prey from as high as 60 feet up, then plunge headfirst into the water, coming to surface with the fish in its very large and expandable bill. Pelecanus occidentalis then tilts the bill down to drain water out of the pouch, and tosses the head back to swallow.
So lucky we are to have these awesome and gregarious birds on earth.
Photo credit: Athena Alexander