Of the eight species of Pelican in the world, Pelecanus occidentalis is the smallest and, if its latin name is meant to be indicative, the species whose range extends furthest west of all it’s large-billed co-geners. I’ll give ole Linneaus a pass here when he named the Brown Pelican in 1766 since he wasn’t yet aware of the even more western American White Pelican. I’ll simply state that directional names seem a bit presumptive when the vast majority of a massive continent still remains to unknown beyond the westward horizon and leave it at that, knowing full well that my critique of his technique coming nearly 250 years too late totally puts the great taxonomist in his place. Take that Carolus!
Of the five subspecies of Brown Pelican that can be found on coastal environments all up and down the North and South American continents, the one most familiar to birders on the east coast is Pelcanus occidentalis carolinensis, the eastern Brown Pelican, which nests along the Gulf coast, around Florida, and as far north as Maryland and is a common as a non-breeder north all the way to New York. The subspecific name, carolinensis, refers to the very first specimen which came from Charleston harbor in South Carolina where they can still be found nesting in the barrier islands beyond the city.
There’s something inherently prehistoric about watching a Brown Pelican in flight. Other birds may have larger wingspan, or strike a more dinosaurian pose when perched, but the Pelican, by virtue of it’s long, thin wings and massive bill necessitating that the head rest just-so on the front of the torso, that seems practically Pterodactylic. There’s no bird alive that so resembles those massive flying lizards, specifically the genus Pteranodon. And it’s not much of a leap when watching a lazy flock of Pelicans slowly cruising down the beach to imagine they’re flying again.
There’s a good reason for that of course. Natural selection, which slowly and inexorably drives species to fill certain niches. This one, filled prehistorically by Pteranodon and currently by Brown Pelicans, involves taking advantage of the bounties of the sea. A massive bill holds many fish and squid and long, narrow wings find thermals that exist just inches above the ocean’s surface. A Brown Pelican can travel far on little energy, which is a clear advantage when you have an entire ocean in which to forage. And forage seems like such an imperfect word for watching a massive Pelican turn into the wind and drop from 40 feet up into the water with a spectacular splash, a sight even the least bird aware person in the world can appreciate. But it wasn’t always that way.
Not more than 40 years ago, the Brown Pelican, specifically the eastern populations, were in big trouble. North Carolina, which now has the largest nesting population of the species, was down to 75 breeding pairs. That’s it. Other states saw similar declines. Louisiana had 11. The entire state of Texas had 8. The culprit was the same toxin that was doing a similar number on other large predatory birds, DDT, which causes the birds to lay eggs with shells so thin that the weight of a brooding bird was enough to crush them. The situation was so dire that the Brown Pelican, the eastern subspecies as well as the Pacific californicus, was placed on the Endangered Species list in 1970 and efforts immediately taken to bring them back from the brink. DDT was banned in the United States in 1972, and the Brown Pelican, as well as other affected species like Osprey and Bald Eagle, famously rebounded, a real deal success story. Delisted in 1985, Brown Pelicans are once again thriving in their former range, a common sight along any coastline in the southeast United States including Wrightsville Beach in New Hanover County, North Carolina, where I found this small flock.
What images of soiled birds that have come out of the Deepwater Horizon clean-up effort have by and large been Brown Pelicans. Because they’re so distinctive, so indicative of sunny days at the beach and lazy summer vacations, they’re an excellent way to relate the severity of the disaster to regular people. Pelicans are proud and adept and just so big, and to see them reduced to a pathetic oil-soaked lump of feathers is wrenching in a very visceral way. They’re not supposed to be like this.
But birds are remarkably good at recovering given the opportunity to do so. There’s some solace, then, in the realization that Brown Pelicans have endured far worse. They’ve been laid lower and returned. Every Brown Pelican on every beach is a testimony to the power of simply giving birds the time and space they need.
It’s inspiring really, at a time when we probably all could use a little inspiration.