Return of the brown pelican

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-115885820226264.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘To some, the brown pelican is awkward and ugly, but to others it is graceful and beautiful,’);

“A wonderful bird is the pelican,

His beak can hold more than his beli can.

He can hold in his beak,

Enough food for a week

But I’m damned if I can see how the helican.”

—Dixon Lanier Merritt, 1910

Most of us know the story of how the eagle, osprey and other fish-eating birds were driven to the brink of extinction by the indiscriminate use of chlorinated hydrocarbon-type insecticides such as DDT and its analogs. Few in the Midwest know that the magnificent brown pelican was included in that ecological disaster.

Though pelicans managed to eke out a precarious existence during the first two decades of massive DDT use, they were almost dealt a knockout blow in the 1960s by a government program to eradicate the fire ant from the south.

The U.S. Public Health Service launched an ill-advised program in the 1950s to eradicate the mosquito vector of yellow fever from the United States as it was feared the virus of “Yellowjack” was making its way toward this country from south of the border. Not to be outdone by the USPHS, the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the early1960s decided it would get into the act and undertook a massive spraying program to eliminate the fire ant, a severe and sometimes dangerous pest spreading throughout the Southern U. S. Great amounts of the potent chlorinated hydrocarbons Dieldrin, Mirex, and Heptachlor (refined Chlordane) were dumped on vast areas of the south. The program was not successful in eradicating the fire ant, but it almost eliminated the brown pelican.

By 1962, the brown pelican was considered to be wiped out west of Florida, with the exception of a few surviving in Galveston Bay, Texas. The fire ant extermination program was terminated in the late 1960s by a red-faced Department of Agriculture, and the use of Dieldrin, Heptachlor, DDT, and other potent insecticides were banned for use in the U.S. From that time until the present, the brown pelican has staged a remarkable comeback that rivals the more celebrated resurgence of the bald eagle and the osprey. Le Grand Gosier (big gullet), as Louisiana cajuns call the pelican, is still on the threatened list, but is now a common sight along the coasts of the eastern U.S. from Texas to North Carolina. In recent years, it has moved northward and is now nesting along the coasts of Virginia and Maryland.

During the 1980s and 90s, I was a frequent visitor to Gulf Shores, Ala. where I owned a condominium, andWe revel in self-pity and depression—we can’t let go of it. We’re bent on bringing retribution. We want to take revenge on someone or something, which ultimately is ourselves. one of my great pleasures while there was to watch pelicans fly by in formation offshore: flap, flap, flap, glide, flap, flap, flap. The formation of several birds would move across the seascape in perfect unison, as if they were orchestrated by some unseen conductor.

Sometimes, the birds would suddenly break formation and dive to the surface of the Gulf. There, they would swim along with their huge beaks wide open, scooping in great numbers of small bait fish into the large pouch attached to the lower jaw inside the mouth. The captured fish were then slowly swallowed into the digestive tract. This unique pouch also serves as a feeding bowl for the young at the nesting site. The mother pelican opens her beak and sort of burps, regurgitating a partially-digested fish soup back into the pouch. The young then stick their heads into the pouch and feed, in what has been described as one of the most ridiculous sights in the natural world—natural for pelicans but ridiculous for anthropomorphic humans.

Compared to many other birds, the brown pelican appears to some as the most awkward, ugly, and perhaps the most grotesque member of the bird world when perched on a piling or on a moored boat. But in flight, no one can deny it is surely one of the most graceful and beautiful of all birds.

We are thrilled when we see a bald eagle or osprey gracing our skies, but I am just as thrilled to watch brown pelicans alive and doing well in an environment that once threatened their existence. It is unfortunate that we in the Rock River Valley have to journey to the coast to enjoy the sight of these unique birds.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Sept. 20-26, 2006, issue

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