Pelicans Among Us
Pelecanus occidentalis is a gangling bird to some peoples eye, and you might wonder how it ever gets airborne with a maw like that. But what brown pelicans might lack in perceived beauty, they make up for in spades with their graceful flight formations and fishing prowess.
If you think youre seeing more of them around Chesapeake Country, youre right. State biologists report that pelicans have expanded both their fishing and nesting range in the last decade. In the summer months, its not uncommon to see them in Eastern Bay, flying in steady squadrons with their massive seven-foot wingspan stretched out only feet above the water. Abundance of anchovies and menhaden lure pelicans up the Bay.
In 1987, the first nest in Maryland was found near Assateague Island. Since 1991, a brown pelican colony near Smith Island has grown to more than 900 nests. Chicks banded at this site have been recaptured as far north as Long Island and as far south as Cuba. One the biggest, if not the biggest, colonies is Fishermans Island National Wildlife Reserve on Virginias Eastern Shore, just north of the Bay Bridge-Tunnel.
Brown pelican populations were once perilously close to the point of no return as a result of DDT poisoning in the 1950s and 1960s. The chemical decimated the populations of several species of fishing birds, including osprey and heron. There were no brown pelicans left in Louisiana due to DDT even well into the late 1970s.
After a couple decades on the U.S. Endangered Species List, pelicans rebounded enough that they were re-categorized as a threatened species. But threats to their existence predate DDT.
Almost 100 years ago, then-President Theodore Roosevelt, the countrys first, if not greatest, true conservation president, designated Floridas Pelican Island as the first National Wildlife Refuge to protect those pelicans from hunting. Fifteen years later, the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 banned hunting for pelicans altogether.
Sure, they look a little goofy, but in flight they are mean fishing machines, reaching speeds of 35 miles per hour. Because they have hollow bones and trap air in their feathers, they are very buoyant. So the bird needs speed to break the waters surface to capture its food. Luckily, nature has endowed pelicans with a chest full of airsacks that inflate to cushion this impact on diving.
Pelicans eat only bait fish, primarily menhaden, silversides and anchovies. They do not eat squid, shrimp or other types of sea life. Using their gargantuan pouch, which can hold up to three gallons of water, as a holding tank, pelicans wolf down the fish whole. A healthy adult eats three to four pounds of fish per day, or slightly less than half its body weight.
Under perfect conditions in captivity, a pelican can live to be 30-plus years old; but in the wild, only one in 10 reach a 10th birthday.
I say the more pelicans on the Bay the better, even if they have a face only a mother could love.
Fish Are Biting
Capt. Karl Roscher of Hurricane says the yellowfin tuna bite heated up last weekend at the Lumpy Bottom and Hot Dog. He and his crew also boated a wahoo in the 40-pound class. On a smaller scale, light-tackle guide Richie Gaines told me last week that breaking schools of blues and rockfish are heading up the Bay. Spot action is hot near Dollys Lump, Chinese Muds and the mouths of the Choptank and Patuxent rivers. The croaker bite in most places has shifted to evening.