Disappearing Florida – the Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Living on a Florida coastal island, as we do, it’s hard to image that the Brown Pelican is an endangered specie. These awkward looking waterbirds, with wing spans up to seven feet, yellow heads, brown bodies, and suitcase-like beaks were nearly wiped out in the early 1900s by Gulf fishermen who slaughtered them, claiming they decimated commercial fishing. Beginning in the 1940s, ingestion of DDT-contaminated fish added to their peril. Unlike most birds who incubate their eggs with the warmth of their feathers, Brown Pelicans stand on their eggs and incubate with the webbing of their feet. This made them particularly vulnerable to DDT, which causes their egg shells to become very thin and crack under the weight of their bodies.

By 1970, no Brown Pelicans were left in Louisiana and were endangered species in Texas, California and Florida. After DDT was banned in 1972, Brown Pelicans made a comeback and were removed from the federal endangered species list last year, although, in Florida, the Brown Pelican continues to be listed as a Species of Special Concern.

However, the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill has been a Brown Pelican disaster and could result in their being returned to the endangered list. According to the U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service, 58% of all oil-spill injured and dead birds have been Brown Pelicans. The timing of the spill was particularly damaging because it occurred during the Pelicans’ annual nesting season. Pelicans nest in the mangroves of the off-shore barrier islands. About 25,000-33,000 bred off the Gulf Coast, with about one-third of them breeding off Louisiana coast on the oil-spill’s hardest hit islands.

Will these magnificent fisherbirds, who can spot fish from as high as 60 feet in the air, and fish by rocketing headfirst into the water, recover again and continue to be the bird watchers’ icon for our Gulf Coast?

From January 14, 2011 through March 13, 2011, the Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, will have an important exhibition, Disappearing Florida. I will be privileged to be a participating photo-artist along with Carlton Ward, Jr., Kevin Boldenow, and Laurie Excell. Week-long photography courses will also be taught by Laurie Excell and Joel Sartore of the National Geographic Society, author of Rare, a book about disappearing species. Over the next several weeks, we will continue our look at Disappearing Florida.

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2 Comments on "Disappearing Florida – the Brown Pelican"

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I feel your pain. We are so very blessed here in NC. I spent the day at the beach watching these wonderful birds fish. They are numerous here and spectacular to watch.

Thanks so much for this informative and impassioned site.
We are visiting from Canada and sorely miss our habit of pelican watching. The skies are hauntingly empty of all birds.