Platoons of Pelicans

A common sight along the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, the Brown Pelican is a remarkable diver whose population has made a strong recovery since the 1970’s.

Found along the East and West Coasts of the United States, as well as the Gulf Coast, the Brown Pelican population has made a significant recovery since the 1970’s when it was listed as endangered. The bird plume trade in the late 1800’s caused massive numbers of pelicans, herons, and roseate spoonbills to be killed. The founding of the national wildlife refuge system and the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918 protected and ultimately saved these species.

Fast forward to the 1960’s and 1970’s, when the pelican and many other bird species, including the Bald Eagle, faced another deadly threat. This time, it was the use of a synthetic insecticide known as DDT.
The American Bird Conservancy notes that “each fish in the pelican’s diet contained small amounts of DDT. As top predators, the birds ate many fish that caused toxins to build up in the birds’ bodies. One result was that the birds produced thin eggshells that broke when parents were incubating, leading to a great loss of eggs and nests.”

By 1970, the Brown Pelican was declared endangered. In 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT in the U.S., resulting in lower levels of DDT in the environment and a reproductive comeback for Brown Pelicans. In addition, protection of nesting areas also helped the species recover. In 2009, the Brown Pelican finally was removed from the endangered species list.

Brown Pelicans are large birds with a huge bill, heavy body, and a wingspan of approximately 80 inches. Platoons of these large Pterodactyl-like pelicans are, thankfully, a common site today on the island and in surrounding coastal areas, where they can be found year-round. They fly along the shores searching for fish, then plunge pouch-first into the water to capture their prey. They might dive from as high as 60 ft. above the water. You’re probably thinking “ouch!” when you see one dive, but you’re not thinking like a pelican!

As Audubon’s website explains, “Several adaptations protect Brown Pelicans as they dive. Air sacs beneath the skin on their breasts act like cushions. Also, while diving, a pelican rotates its body ever so slightly to the left. This rotation helps avoid injury to the esophagus and trachea, which are located on the right side of the bird’s neck. Pelicans have also learned that a steep dive angle, between 60 and 90 degrees, reduces aiming errors caused by water surface refraction. We know that pelicans ‘learn’ this behavior because adults are better marksmen than young birds.”

Proof of the continuing recovery of this pelican species can be found just south of Amelia Island in Huguenot Memorial Park. There, in 2018, for the first time, birders and beachgoers were astonished and delighted to see that Brown Pelicans formed a colony and were nesting! This was a remarkable surprise. Observed busily gathering sticks and other nesting materials, they began their courtships.

On the protected dunes they snuggled in among the Royal Terns, Laughing Gulls, American Oystercatchers, and other species and made history. Jolie Friedrich, City of Jacksonville’s Parks Naturalist Supervisor, was told by Florida Fish & Wildlife that this was the first documented brown pelican nesting site north of Volusia County in Florida.

Brown Pelicans usually lay 2 to 4 eggs once a season, which they incubate for about 32 days. Their young are born white but grow darker as they age. Adults stay very busy protecting and feeding their nestlings for about 11 weeks until their young can fledge.

To help save pelicans and other bird species, please stay off the dunes, keep your dogs on a leash, and don’t disturb any wildlife. Their situations are fragile at best, and they need us. For more information, visit allaboutbirds.org and to report your sightings, visit eBird.org.