Mar/Apr 2013For Wildlife Watchers: Brown Pelican by Rob Simbeck, photograph by Michael Foster

Brown pelicans are a familiar sight around ports and docks, where they're often seen on pilings, piers and boats, drying their wings in the sun.

Man and nature alike have been tough on the brown pelican. As early as the 1830s, John James Audubon wrote, "Its numbers have been considerably reduced, so much indeed that in the inner Bay of Charleston, where twenty or thirty years ago it was quite abundant, very few individuals are now seen, and these chiefly during a continuance of tempestuous weather."

The challenges have been many. Hunters and egg collectors took a huge toll, as did storms and hurricanes, which can disrupt nesting habitat for years. Crows, gulls and raccoons eat eggs and young. Tick infestations can cause pelicans to abandon nests. Around the turn of the 20th century, demand from the fashion industry for feathers led hunters to slaughter pelicans and many other birds. There was more pressure after World War I, when food shortages led commercial fishermen to claim pelicans were harming the industry. Finally, DDT, introduced widely in the 1940s as an insecticide, entered the food chain and caused the thinning of eggshells, which often broke during incubation.

The brown pelican (there are six subspecies) was declared endangered even before the Endangered Species Act of 1973. It continues to face natural and man-made challenges, from storms to entanglement in fishing line, but amid all the bad news, there have been many positive steps in what is ultimately a tale of recovery. Initially, a handful of people stood up to feather hunters at one of the last brown pelican rookeries on the east coast of Florida, helping spur President Theodore Roosevelt to designate a portion of Pelican Island as the first national wildlife refuge in 1903. The real turning point, though, came with the 1972 ban on DDT at the time of the Endangered Species Act.

Brown Pelican - Pelecanus occidentalis

Range and Habitat: Seashores. Found on Atlantic and Pacific coasts. North and South America. Nests on a few islands in Charleston County.

Description: Four to five feet long, wingspan six to eight feet, seven to ten pounds, silver/grey/brown, white head, grayish bill, black legs and webbed feet.

Reproduction: Nests in trees or on ground. Two to three white eggs incubated by both parents for twenty-eight to thirty days.

Viewing Tips: Can be seen flying and feeding along most of the coast.

There were fewer than 2,000 nests in South Carolina in the early 1970s. By the 1980s, there were 7,000, and in 1985, the brown pelican was taken off the Endangered Species List in the southeastern U.S. Numbers began falling again in 1990 - "likely a combination of many factors that are difficult to measure, such as less food, more human disturbance at nesting areas, contamination in the environment and parasites," according to Felicia Sanders, coastal projects wildlife biologist for the S.C. Department of Natural Resources - but are presently stable.

The DNR, Audubon South Carolina and other groups recommended regulatory changes for the five DNR-managed islands used for nesting by pelicans, black skimmers and three species of terns. Pelicans had abandoned Bird Key Stono as a nesting site in 2005, but that left four - Deveaux Bank at the mouth of the North Edisto River; Crab Bank; Marsh Island, owned by the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge; and Tomkins Island, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the Savannah River. Crab Bank and Bird Key Stono are now closed to the public during nesting season, Marsh Island is closed year-round, and while Deveaux Bank is open, visitors are restricted to the intertidal area.

"There was some opposition," says Sanders, "but overall, people have accepted the restrictions and now support them. Crab Bank has been the biggest success. After increased protection to the island, seabird numbers increased and pelicans, terns and skimmers began nesting at the edge of the island, which provides fantastic viewing - from a distance - for boaters."

The DNR also monitors avian ticks on the islands and sprays insecticides when necessary. Pelican nests now number 4,462 on the four islands, including 3,000 at Deveaux Bank, which went nine years without a pelican nest following Hurricane David in 1979.

Given all these efforts, the brown pelican is now a much more common sight in South Carolina and along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, part of a range that extends along much of the Atlantic and Caribbean, and along the Pacific from Alaska to Chile. There is no mistaking it in flight - head drawn in, feet trailing, long bill jutting forward as strong purposeful wing beats propel it into a seemingly effortless glide above the water.

Then there is that dramatic hunting technique. When a brown pelican spies surface-schooling fish, it will dive from as high as thirty feet, pulling its wings in at the last instant and entering the water with great force, scooping up fish in that big dipnet of a bill, called a gular pouch. That crash entry is cushioned by air sacs under the skin that also allow them to bob easily to the surface. They eat half their weight in fish per day and their bills can indeed, as the limerick says, hold more than their belly can.

These are large birds, up to four-and-a-half feet in length and weighing from seven to ten pounds, with foot-long bills and seven-foot wingspans. They are silver-gray and brown, with white heads and necks, and chestnut brown at the back. During breeding season, the male's white plumage turns yellowish-gold. They have black legs and feet, pale yellow eyes and grayish white bills.

They are a familiar sight around ports and docks, where they're often seen on pilings, piers and boats, drying their wings in the sun. They roost on the sand.

Beginning in March, breeding-aged males and females from three to five years and up will begin mating behavior, with males snapping their bills and beating rivals with their wings. Here, that sweet, easy glide gives way to plain awkwardness on land. The male selects a site and uses display behavior consisting of head and wing movements to try to attract a female. "Brown pelicans are highly social year-round and breed in colonies of up to several thousand pairs," says DNR wildlife technician Janet Thibault. "Pairs build nests on the ground or in trees, depending on the substrate available."

On the ground, the nest may be little more than a shallow scrape with a dirt rim. In trees, the female will weave grass, sticks and reeds brought by the male into a nest, a process that can take more than a week. The female lays two or three eggs, and the male feeds her while she is on the nest and shares in the month-long incubation, which involves keeping their webbed feet over the eggs.

The chicks hatch blind and naked, with large bills and feet. For the first ten days, the parents regurgitate food into the nest, and then the chicks begin eating directly from their parents' bills. Eggs and young are particularly susceptible to predators, overheating or hypothermia when left unattended.

On the ground, chicks begin exploring at about a month old. If the nest is in a tree or bush, they will remain there until they are eleven to twelve weeks of age, when they can fly and fend for themselves. While they face many perils while young, once they reach adulthood they have little to fear from predators. After two centuries of hunting, pollution, severe weather and other threats, this striking symbol of the state's shore life should now be in a good position to thrive.

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