How the brown pelican came back from the brink of extinction
Known for its nurturing qualities and its awkward grace, the brown pelican had endeared itself to people on the Gulf Coast for centuries, even being honored as Louisiana’s state bird. But its local existence nearly came to an end with the widespread use of the pesticide DDT, which contributed to the decline of pelican populations in the mid-1900s to the point where it was put on the endangered species list in 1970. There it stayed for 39 years. Then, in a celebrated conservation success story, the pelican was removed from the list in 2009, thanks to the banning of DDT, which resulted in the local population of brown pelicans rebounding to around 650,000. The removal of the brown pelican from the list, announced by then-Sen. Mary Landrieu and officials from the Department of the Interior, marked a triumph for conservationists and a particularly happy story for New Orleanians just four years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ravaged coastal habitats.
The brown pelican continues to thrive. It has remained off the endangered species list despite a few major challenges, most notably the 2010 BP oil spill. Despite dramatic images of oil-covered pelicans that illustrated the ecological damage of the massive spill, pelican populations were declared stable just two years later, the birds were nesting, and they could be seen all over the state’s southernmost wildlife refuge areas. A trip across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway bridge often provides a front-row seat to brown pelicans in action.
- DDT, which was widely used to combat mosquitoes, was problematic for pelicans because it caused them to lay eggs with thinner-than-normal shells. Because pelicans incubate their eggs by essentially standing on them, the eggs would crack under the parents’ feet. The regulation of the pesticide directly resulted in the population’s comeback.
- You may have heard the first two lines to this old limerick: “A wonderful bird is the pelican/His bill will hold more than his belly can.” But did you know it’s true? The pouch on a pelican’s lower bill can hold around three gallons; its stomach, only one.
- Early European settlers in the region admired the bird for its attentiveness to its young, adopting the bird as a symbol of Louisiana even before it achieved statehood. The pelican was put on the state seal in 1902 and the flag in 1912.
- The current state flag’s pelican is more white than brown, though it still carries the spirit of the pelican’s generosity. As pictured, the bird is shedding drops of blood to feed its young. This has been a long-standing folk legend surrounding the bird, though it is not actually true. Even the nurturing pelican exhibits self-preservation and will not harm itself to feed its hatchlings.
- The brown pelican is known for its unique hunting technique. Despite its somewhat goofy appearance, it plunge-dives into the water, scooping up fish and water into its pouch. When the pelican dives, it tucks its head and rotates its body to the left, probably to protect its trachea and esophagus during impact. When it has caught a fish, the bird resurfaces and drains the water from its pouch then points its bill skyward and swallows its catch. It is the only species of pelican that does this.
- Despite its talented diving abilities, the brown pelican is also known for a lazier approach in which it paddles around and stabs at the water to catch dinner. Or, even easier, the pelican will find a fishing boat and poach off of its catch.
- In 1887, the Pelicans became the mascot of a still-fondly remembered minor-league baseball team that played locally until 1959. In 1977, a namesake franchise played a single season.
- New Orleans’ NBA team chose to honor the bird, and the city’s old baseball team, by changing its name from the Hornets to the Pelicans in 2013, but it wasn’t a hit right away. The original design of the sideline-stalking Pierre the Pelican mascot was so frightening to some that a wave of social media reactions prompted the franchise to re-think Pierre’s look. The result was a friendlier and happier-looking Pierre.
- The brown pelican is a particularly large bird species. The local subspecies can weigh up to 8 pounds and the largest birds can have a wingspan of 7 feet or more.
Early settlers admired the pelican for the way it nurtured its young, and residents of Louisiana have continued to honor the bird as a symbol of the state. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the pelican has triumphed over the some of the greatest adversities in the gulf region, in some ways a physical and symbolic representation of the entire Gulf region in Louisiana. What better animal to represent the people of New Orleans and Louisiana? For people that prize family connection and who have endured despite environmental and manmade odds, the brown pelican is a fitting symbol of The Pelican State.