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Volume xviii, Issue 25 ~ June 24 to June 30, 2010

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Earth Journal

by Gary Pendleton

The Bay’s Summer Visitor

Brown pelicans arrive after wintering on the Gulf Coast

The brown pelican, Pelicanus occidentalis, is the state bird of Louisiana. Worldwide, there are six species of pelican. Two species, the white and the brown, are native to the U.S. The brown is the smallest of all; Atlantic browns are even smaller than the ones in the Pacific. Still they are large and with their huge bill, unmistakable.

For years, brown pelicans were not to be seen on the Chesapeake — or anywhere. From the late 1950s until the mid 1980s, the brown pelican practically disappeared. The pesticide DDT nearly drove pelicans, eagles, osprey and peregrine falcons to extinction.

The story of DDT has been told over and over. The chemical persists in the environment and concentrates in the bodies of animals at the top of the food chain. The toxin causes eggs to weaken, so the chicks die. Biologist Rachel Carson wrote a book called Silent Spring that rang the alarm. The world responded, the birds were declared endangered and DDT was banned in the U.S. The birds came back, and quite possibly we were all spared from the toxic effects of a dangerous host of related threats.

It was on the California coast south of Carmel that I first saw the noble pelicans. I was fascinated watching the big birds cruise, in single file, parallel to the shoreline. I loved how they could fly so close to the water in their game of follow the leader, flapping their wings with slow strong beats. That was in the mid 1980s.

Scientific name:
Pelicanus occidentalis

What to look for: A large dark bird with huge bill and 79-inch wingspan.

Where to look: Over Chesapeake Bay, especially the southern portion. Brown pelicans are sometimes seen near Solomons Island. They have frequently been reported around Point Look Out and around some of the remote islands in the Chesapeake — at least for now.

Meanwhile, on the Chesapeake, the number of known breeding pairs has sky-rocketed since 1987 from five to 1,042. Last year I saw one near Deale, which was pretty cool. Historically, even before DDT, pelicans were not known to breed in Bay waters. They do today, but what about tomorrow?

Tomorrow is just too sad. It is tragic because when the weather turns cool the big birds will head south. Not even Rachel Carson can save the Bay’s pelicans from what awaits in the Gulf of Mexico this fall.

Maybe I am wrong, maybe I am being an alarmist, because I am not an expert. I have searched and haven’t found anything in the news about the threats to migratory birds.

In a 1999 article in the Bay Journal, Naturalist Kathy Reshetiloff wrote: “Brown pelicans have few natural enemies. Their biggest threat has been people. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pelicans were hunted for their feathers. After World War I, pelicans were slaughtered because it was thought that they were decimating commercial fisheries. With the use of DDT in the 1940s, pelican populations plummeted.”

Now we will see if the story doesn’t end there.

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