by Alex Forsythe
It’s January and winter has definitely arrived! With lows in the single digits, many of us are huddled around our fireplaces wishing we were vacationing at an oceanfront resort somewhere closer to the equator. Allow me to add a bit of whimsy to your vacation dream: picture, if you will, a group of Brown Pelicans flying over your resort when suddenly, right in front of you, they dive-bomb face-first into the ocean waves.
Not so long ago, there was a very real risk that beachcombers would no longer see Brown Pelicans. Pelicans recovered from plume hunters in the millinery trade during the 19th and early 20th centuries with some help from Theodore Roosevelt who designated Florida’s Pelican Island as the first national wildlife refuge, and the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. After World War I, pelicans faced widespread slaughter by commercial fishermen who blamed them for the reduction in fish populations. After being proven innocent, their populations recovered only to face the ravages of DDT. With the prevalence of DDT, the shells of pelican eggs became too thin to support the weight of the parents. Pelicans use their feet, not their stomachs, to incubate their eggs. They effectively stand on their eggs to keep them warm. By the 1960’s, pelicans were in steep decline. In Louisiana, which claims the Brown Pelican as its state bird, no nesting pairs were found by 1961. In 1968 Louisiana embarked on an ambitious 12-year reintroduction plan. By 1985, Brown Pelicans were removed from the Endangered Species List for the eastern U.S. and ten years later the Brown Pelican was declared “recovered” in Louisiana.
“A wonderful bird is the pelican; His bill will hold more than his belly can!” So begins the famous limerick by Dixon Lanier Merritt, American poet and humorist, and founding member of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. It may seem that Merritt was exaggerating, but was he? Not really. Brown Pelicans can hold up to 3 gallons of water in the pouch of their bills. The volume they can hold in their stomach is just 1 gallon, thus proving Merritt’s limerick was strangely accurate. The pelican’s bill and pouch are used as a dip net, scooping up water and fish. After the water is squeezed out, the pelican swallows the fish. The pouch is also used as a training ground of sorts for their young. The chicks use the pouch as a feeding trough. In addition, it is thought that the pouch serves as a cooling mechanism.
Pelicans have keen eyesight and are able to spot fish in the crashing waves from 60 feet in the air. They dive at their prey, tucking in their head and rotating slightly to the left to protect the trachea and esophagus on the right. Air sacs under the skin cushion the impact and provide buoyancy.
Brown Pelicans nest in large colonies of up to several thousand pairs. Nest styles vary from depressions in the ground to platforms of sticks in trees. About a month after hatching, the chicks are capable of swimming at speeds up to 3 mph. The birds can live up to 43 years.
If you need a smile during these bitter winter nights, let your thoughts transport you to the warm ocean breezes and the antics of Brown Pelicans. And while you’re lounging on your imaginary sandy beach, take a moment to appreciate the wisdom of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Act which gave protection to the pelicans and other migratory birds and their habitats. Watch for and participate in centennial celebrations and events held in honor of the Act and hosted by U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the DNR, Audubon societies, and other organizations. Perhaps, as your part of the celebration, you can write a pelican limerick that rivals Merritt’s!