By Andrew LaBar
On a recent walk along Limantour Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore, a place close to my heart, I witnessed something truly special. About one hundred feet off the shoreline, seven California brown pelicans were orchestrating an amazing diving display in search of food. Abruptly, in rapid succession, these large birds would stop their flapping, twist their bodies to face straight down, and plunge with heavy intensity straight into the waves, beaks slightly open, to catch the unsuspecting fish below.
The California brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis californicus), the smallest species of pelican, likes to spend time in the Bay Area. The only dark member of the pelican family, a fully grown brown pelican is four feet from bill to tail with a seven-foot wingspan. Its brown body gives way to a white head and neck and a yellowish crown. Like all species of pelican, the California brown pelican is best known for its long bill, around one foot in length and, of course, its stunning throat pouch.
Range and Habitat
The California brown pelican has a large range, from British Columbia to El Salvador, and along the California coast year-round. Breeding generally takes place in the southern regions of the state and into Mexico. Unlike other species of pelicans, the brown pelican almost always remains by the coast. Due to environmental factors, however, a small population has begun to breed around the Salton Sea.
Mating and Lifespan
Pelicans reach maturity about three years after birth and can mate from then until the end of their lifespan, which can be twenty-five years or more. Brown pelicans prefer nesting grounds along rocky shorelines where terrestrial mammal or human contact is minimal (near-shore islands and/or nearby trees may work). Nesting sites are chosen by males, and located among a cluster of other pelican nests or “colonies”. The male and female brown pelicans alternate incubation days by standing on the eggs with their webbed feet.
Thanks to the many air sacs throughout its body that provide cushion for constant diving, the brown pelican is the only plunge diving species of pelican. After spotting a suitable victim, the bird stops flight, plunges down into the water from heights of up to fifty feet, and stuns prey down to six feet below the water’s surface. With its large throat pouch, these pelicans can scoop up to three gallons of water and prey, which typically consists of anchovies, sardines and mackerels.
Brown pelican populations have been through the ringer. These glorious birds were once heavily hunted, both to obtain their feathers and to reduce their supposed competition with human fishing. In addition, after it was revealed that fish consumed by pelicans off the coast of Southern California were contaminated with DDT, it was soon discovered that this toxin causes brown pelican eggshells to lose about thirty-five percent of their density. Pelicans protect their eggs by covering them with their webbed feet, something the weakened shells couldn’t endure. By the late 1960s, brown pelicans were nearly extinct along the Gulf Coast and had an almost complete reproductive failure in California.
The brown pelican gained protection under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1970, and DDT was federally banned in 1972. Despite these conservation efforts, California brown pelican nests were estimated to have fallen from 1,125 in 1969 to 466 in 1978. However, the following decade saw an increase of almost eight thousand nests in California. Today, it is thought that the population of California brown pelicans is hovering somewhere around 172,000 birds, likely the highest it has ever been. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar recently announced that the California Brown Pelican has recovered and can end its four-decade presence on the endangered species watch list. Maybe those pelicans I spied at Point Reyes were celebrating — or organizing a reunion tour.
Though the repopulation of the brown pelican nationally and stateside is a feat in and of itself, we as a people must remain conscious of our land-based decisions and the effects they may have on these magnificent birds. You may not currently have any emotional connection to these birds, but I suggest you take a trip out to one of our bay shorelines and watch a healthy population in action. You won’t forget it anytime soon.