The great success of the brown pelican

Published 8:55 pm Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A strange old bird is the pelican; His beak holds more than his belly can. I’m darned if I see how the hellican.

Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s, brown pelicans were dying out. Where once they had been numerous, colonies dwindled and disappeared. The culprit was DDT, a pesticide that made their eggshells fragile.

But concerned citizens banded together to force a ban on the use of DDT. The species slowly started coming back. Now, while they are still listed as endangered, they are quite common everywhere along the east coast south of Maryland.

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It is, as far as I know, the first environmental success story in U.S. history.

But there’s much more to brown pelicans than this brief tale. They are awe inspiring — for their flight, for their appearance, for their hunting and eating habits — they’re just remarkable birds.

Two weeks ago I was sitting at Johnson and Sons on Chuckatuck Creek dock, waiting for a bushel of oysters to arrive. In that 15-minute span, I saw about 10 brown pelicans (we have no white pelicans on the east coast) and watched them take off from the water’s surface, circle to find a school of fish, then “plunge dive” into the school and swallow their prey.

So what? So plenty. First, seeing even one pelican up a creek off the James used to be rare, especially in the winter, in January. Back in the day, they did not winter over, at least not in sufficient numbers to be seen or watched idly. Even 10 years ago, I don’t remember pelicans wintering over.

Is it another sign of global warming? I went home and Googled the brown pelican to find some interesting facts:

They are the smallest of pelicans, but still stretch 40 to 50 inches long, with a             wingspan of six to seven feet.

The reason the DDT hurt their numbers so badly is that the adults stand on their eggs — they don’t fluffy-nestle down. No wonder the eggs broke.

The oldest known pelican lived 43 years.

They are only found on salt water, within 12 miles off the coast.

They are gregarious, flying/soaring just off the water in groups of 10 or so, flapping their wings in unison, then rising to 65 feet to plunge dive.

When they dive in, it’s always with a turn to the left. It’s because their trachea and esophagus are on the right. Who knew?

When they plunge dive, they may just stun prey and then leisurely eat them, or they may expand their bill to engulf many small fish. The bill expands to hold 2.6 gallons. Their beaks DO hold more than their bellies can.

Either way, gulls often accompany them to peck fish from their bill or eat stunned prey.

Sit on a coastal beach in summer and watch them soar and dive for hours. Or watch for 15 minutes while waiting for oysters in mid-winter.

Either way, we owe the Audubon Society or some other dedicated preservationists a true debt of gratitude. They saved one of God’s truly noble creatures.

And I sure never knew about them turning to the left. Maybe they’re Democrats?

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at